Picking apart the Al-Jazeera puzzle

Q&A with Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence. He is currently a lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan.

al jazeera 88 (photo credit: )
al jazeera 88
(photo credit: )
Q&A with Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence. He is currently a lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan. What function does Al-Jazeera serve? It's an Arab satellite station that operates freely here in Israel. Its slogan is: "The Opinion… and the Other Opinion." On the face of it, that's a radical shift from the mantra of the old state-controlled Arab media. Al-Jazeera was the first to interview Jewish Israelis; the first to let us speak live on the air without editing. State-controlled Arab television always records and edits. Does Al-Jazeera have a political agenda? It's subtle, but if you watch as many hours of Al-Jazeera as I do - and I'm also interviewed as a straight-talking, non-official Israeli - you quickly discover that it is an Islamist mouthpiece channeling the message and philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood. It grants Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi untold hours of airtime, and his message is that of radical Islam. But don't they have unveiled women presenters? Yes. That's a bit of a paradox. Where does Al-Jazeera broadcast from? In started in 1996 with a multi-million grant from the Emir of Qatar and broadcasts from Qatar. What other agenda does Al-Jazeera have beyond the Islamist message? That of supporting all organizations and movements that are anti-establishment. Isn't that a strange line for the fat-cats in Qatar to promote? Not if they want the Arab masses to focus their frustrations on their own dictators and rulers - Mubarak and Abbas, for instance - and not on the Gulf sheikhs who are laughing all the way to the bank. So the station's message is aimed at the man in the gutter. And the combination of radical Islam and championing the frustrated, downtrodden and oppressed brings Al-Jazeera immense ratings. They're not concerned this message will come back to bite them? The people in Qatar who matter are rich and not susceptible to Al-Jazeera's Islamist and anti-establishment message. How does Hamas come out on Al-Jazeera? Wonderfully. Hamas is a combination of both parts of Al-Jazeera's agenda: It's Islamist and it's anti-establishment. How much of the Israeli viewpoint gets across to the masses as they watch Al-Jazeera? A minuscule amount. If you add appearances by official and non-official Jewish Israelis - something you might see once a day, just to maintain the pose of giving the other side - the ratio adds up to almost nothing... minutes in a 24-hour news cycle. Is it the same on Al-Jazeera English? Totally different. The English station is more professional, more balanced - in Arab terms - though still not on the level of a CNN. Does Al-Jazeera differ from Al-Arabiya? Al-Arabiya is also a leading satellite station. It broadcasts from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, but it's owned by Saudi Arabia. Relative to Al-Jazeera, it is less hostile to Israel. What role does satellite TV play in Palestinian society? If you walk into a cafe in Ramallah or in east Jerusalem, you'll see the TV on and tuned to Al-Jazeera. It is a ubiquitous presence. Just having it on in Arab society is a form of rebellion against the local authorities - Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia has never let an Al-Jazeera reporter set foot into the country. All its reporting about Saudi Arabia comes from foreign sources. Does Israel broadcast satellite TV in Arabic? Regrettably, no. This is the biggest failure of those who are responsible for getting our message out. Israel is in the vanguard of hi-tech and communications, but we have utterly failed to so much as raise our voice in broadcasting our standpoint. There is money for a Knesset Channel, but there is no budget for satellite news TV in Arabic! It's irrational.