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On yesterday's Jerusalem Post letters page, a reader from London, Golda Zafer-Smith, made a passionate plea for the establishment of "an Israeli 24-hour news program." Coincidentally, former MK Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, the colorful billionaire immigrant from France, this week announced that he is setting up what he calls "an Israeli Al-Jazeera" satellite television station in English and French to promote Israel's case around the globe.
"I have just returned from Israel," Zafer-Smith wrote. "My Hebrew is not bad... However, when it comes to understanding the news, I found I had to rely on CNN or the BBC (never being around for the 5 p.m. news in English).
"It struck me that there are relatively few non-Israelis who are able to understand the news in Hebrew on Kol Yisrael or Israel Television. Numbered among those who therefore rely on CNN and the BBC when they are in Israel are most of the foreign journalists whose reports impact on world opinion and influence policies.
"An Israeli 24-hour news program which presented Israeli perspectives on Middle Eastern events and affairs in English and/or other major world languages, plus subtitles, could give the context which tells Israel's side of the story. It is surprising that with so much Israeli expertise in technology, such a vital weapon is missing from Israel's arsenal."
As if he were responding to the letter, Flatto-Sharon told the Post yesterday that he planned to have a round-the-clock satellite news station operating within three months. The tentative name for the station is TV F1, the "F" standing for Flatto. He said he was currently raising money to finance the project, and was working with Israel's Channel 10 television and Ghislain Allon, who created the French Jewish TV station, TFJ (Television Juive de France), eight years ago.
"Alors, what I want to do is English satellite TV in all the world," Flatto Sharon told the Post in his distinctive French accent. "In our country, we have had success in many things. But in the media we are a total failure. I want to do something that will be an Israeli Al-Jazeera, and I'm sure it will be good for the state."
Flatto-Sharon aired the common complaint that Al-Jazeera and Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV stations gave Israel a media lesson during the recent Lebanon war. And he gave the example of the deaths at Kana, when inflated figures of the number of fatalities were widely reported and accepted. "A lie is like a drug. It gets into the blood," he said.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station, is due to launch its English TV news broadcasts in the fall. Having emerged during the Iraq war as a major media player to compete with CNN and the BBC and almost cornering the market in the Arab world, Al-Jazeera in English will no doubt be a powerful force for Israel to reckon with.
His chequered past notwithstanding, a private initiative such as Flatto-Sharon's, should it come to pass, might constitute a partial response. And he is far from the first private individual to propose solutions to what is widely recognized by Israel's supporters around the world as a strategic Israeli failure to effectively articulate and press its case to the watching and listening publics.
But however laudible such individual efforts may be, it is official Israel that has the problem. It is to official Israel that the world media turns for responses to events. It is official Israel that so often fails to craft and express the messages about its reality that it wants understood. And it is official Israel that still, insistently, refuses to allocate the strategic thought, and the budget, necessary to so much as fight its corner, much less prevail, in the media ring.
As the Post reported on Friday, the prime minister's new English-language spokesman has been thrust into the media spotlight with but a single colleague by her side. State-controlled IBA television and radio news in English have seen their staff, and their broadcasts, steadily diminished over the years due to misguided budget cuts. Efforts like the one planned by Flatto-Sharon may be admirable, but it is the Israeli government that urgently needs to take up the media challenge.
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