Two weeks ago, the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir, as its cover story, attempted a journalistic "hatchet job" on Yuval Shemtov - known to many, probably most, of the nation's children as Yuval Hamebulbal (Yuval the confused).
For reasons best known to its editors, Kol Ha'ir has it in for Yuval, the croak-voiced clown who has graduated from boisterous puppetry, jerky dances and excruciating rhymes at kids' parties to boisterous puppetry, jerky dances and excruciating rhymes on big-selling DVDs and a colorful afternoon children's TV show.
When he wasn't away on reserve service with his paratroop unit, Yuval was a birthday regular for all three of my children; his was the first and for a long time the only phone number my first-born had memorized; when my kids were sick one time, he popped in to cheer them up. In short, my family adores him.
Nothing in the article detracted from that affection. It focused heavily on the escalating fees Yuval has charged as his fame has spread, attempting to depict pricing that puts him out of the birthday party league as tantamount to criminal. It tried to highlight a purported lack of educational value in his material. And it really took exception to his rhymes. But the piece - and it certainly wasn't for the lack of trying - had absolutely no dirt on him. He's not a child molester. He doesn't cheat on his taxes. Indeed, as the selection of furious letters in his defense in last week's paper attested, he's a thoroughly decent individual, who does a great deal of unpublicized charity work and gives a lot of children in this country something to smile about.
There is, however, every reason to write huge-headlined, horrified newspaper articles about another popular, colorful afternoon children's TV show, whose producers and content truly are despicable and worthy of every ounce of condemnation that journalism, and the rest of society, can muster.
I'm referring to the Friday afternoon Tomorrow's Pioneers show disseminated to most Palestinian households and, nowadays, across the Arab world via Hamas's Al-Aksa satellite TV station.
Farfur, the life-size Mickey Mouse lookalike, was killed in a recent episode, murdered off-screen by an Israeli interrogator infuriated by the mouse's heroic refusal to sell his homeland for lots of money to the Jews. "Yes, our children friends, we lost our dearest friend, Farfur," the program's little girl host, Saraa, who must be all of 10, told her viewers sadly. "Farfur turned to a martyr while protecting his land. He turned into a martyr at the hands of the criminals and murderers. The murderers of the innocent children... You saw that the Jews let Farfur die as a martyr." (The translation comes from Palestinian Media Watch.)
Saraa even took a phone call in the studio on the subject from three-year-old Shaimaa: "We don't like the Jews because they are dogs! We will fight them!" this toddler declared on air.
"That's right, oh Shaimaa," Saraa sagely agreed. "The Jews are criminals and enemies. We must expel them from our land."
Last week, Tomorrow's Pioneers introduced a fresh cuddly-toy role model, Nahool the bee, self-proclaimed cousin of Farfur. He buzzed from up near the studio ceiling, so that young Saraa was filmed looking up at him with innocent childish fealty as he vowed to stick to "the path of heroism, the path of martyrdom, the path of the Jihad warriors.
"Me and my friends shall continue the path of Farfur," Nahool declaimed high-pitchedly. "And in his name we shall take revenge upon the enemies of Allah, the murderers of the prophets, the murderers of innocent children, until Al-Aksa will be liberated from their filth."
IN THE five-year update this week of his landmark address on the need for non-terrorist leadership to steer the Palestinians to statehood, President Bush set out a long register of things the Palestinians must do to create the climate in which peaceful co-existence alongside a secure Israel could flourish. "The Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope - not a future of terror and death. They must match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror. The Palestinian government must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure... They must work to stop attacks on Israel... They must enforce the law without corruption..."
In essence, then, one fears, the speech amounted to a triumph of hope over experience.
Israel's recent leaders, despairing of viable Palestinian partners, attempted to create a better, safer reality by acting unilaterally, hoping that if we chose to leave the Palestinians alone in Gaza (as we had done with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon), and potentially in much of the West Bank, they might just leave us alone, too.
Internalizing both the absence of a credible partner and the abject failure of unilateralism, the US president is now formalizing what amounts to Tony Blair's West Bank Correctional Facility, aimed at dragging a Fatah leadership that has been demonstrably disinclined to act on any of Bush's long list of "musts" toward acceptable norms of behavior.
It is a tall order, probably an impossible one, and Blair's successes in Northern Ireland serve as no real basis for heightened expectation.
Attitudes to Israel in Fatah range from intolerance to ambivalence, with only a very few of its leaders prepared to publicly uphold terms for peace that Israel might find viable. And Abbas has proved himself thoroughly incapable of imposing a shift toward wider moderation or to root out the corruption that paved the way for Hamas's parliamentary takeover and its subsequent violent confirmation of control in Gaza.
While some Israeli analysts complacently argue that no similar coup is imminent in the West Bank, Hamas has already been voted into power there at the local council level, and is concertedly spreading its ideology of adamant resistance to Israel via its clerics, its politicians and, don't forget, its kids' TV shows.
Israel, self-defeatingly, meanwhile, sometimes seems to be helping legitimize the very terrorism we most need to marginalize. Where, one wonders, is our interest in facilitating a West Bank homecoming for the veteran head of a murderous Palestinian rejectionist group, Nayef Hawatmeh? Why would Abbas, the head of a hierarchy ostensibly now determined to chart a new, constructive course, have wanted him there, either?
Why, for that matter, would Israel, at the same time as it rightly berates France for its legitimizing dialogue with the murderous Hizbullah, set free convicted members of terrorist organizations formally committed to our destruction or tell those of them still on the loose that they will no longer be hunted, their crimes unpunished? Think of the soldiers' lives risked in capturing and trying to capture such men. And why would we make a further mockery of our own rule of law - even as we protest the absence of proper legal procedures in the PA - by contemplating the release of other dangerous enemies, including Marwan Barghouti, the Tanzim chief convicted by our courts of direct involvement in several murderous conspiracies? Nelson Mandela he ain't.
Israel has already been down the path of wiping from the legal records acts of terrorism carried out by Palestinians, justifying the pardons in the hope of building a better future in the course of a coordinated peace process. In many cases, the killers' purported rehabilitation proved false, and the diplomatic process collapsed as a direct consequence of the maintenance of a murderous, uncompromising Palestinian ideology on Israel.
Today, though, we are not even at step one of a negotiated process. We are not freeing the men of violence within a robust framework of historic reconciliation, a break from the bloody past. Israel is, rather, merely making gestures - disavowing our judicial principles en route - in the faint hope of sparking such a process.
Yet the very nature of the gestures is utterly at odds with the intended result. We are setting free the violent opponents of reconciliation, emboldening them and legitimizing them, further marginalizing and discrediting the dwindling constituency of genuine moderates, and simultaneously endangering ourselves. Israel understandably wants to bolster relative moderates to offset the rise of Hamas, to take steps to demonstrate to the Palestinian public that negotiation and compromise, not extremism, represent the way forward. Is that the message the Palestinian public will absorb from these particular gestures?
LESS THAN a month after packing up and moving out of 10 Downing Street, the estimable Blair is due here on Monday to begin the Herculean task of building a better future. In his last House of Commons appearance, he declared his belief that a solution to our conflict could be found, provided there was "a huge intensity of focus and work." Wishful thinking? We are about to see.
One can only implore Blair to impress upon Abbas, or PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, or whichever Palestinian figures he considers have the will and the means to extricate their people from the tentacled embrace of the secular and the Islamic extremists, that pressing for the return of exiled terror chiefs, or the release of jailed ones, is the wrong course. The killers must be sidelined, not appeased.
And one can only wish, without much confidence, that he will be savvy enough to recognize that new generations of young Palestinian minds - tomorrow's pioneers, indeed - are being poisoned every time they sit down in front of their television sets to watch the cynically choreographed interplay between Hamas child-host Saraa and her incendiary mouse, bee or other toy du jour.
Oslo Accords, road maps, Saudi proposals, Tenet, Zinni and Dayton plans and, now, the Blair Wish Project - any and all of them could serve as a basis for negotiated progress if a genuine desire for coexistence flourished on the Palestinian side. In the absence of such desire, any and all of them can only founder.
And every Friday's squeaking visit by Farfur, every stinging intervention from Nahool, can only further reduce the dwindling reservoir of hope.