Israel's unheard voice

Israel finally has plans for an independent state-supported Arab TV channel

It hardly surprised anyone to hear earlier this week that the socioeconomic cabinet chaired by Ehud Olmert approved proposed reforms to Israel's Broadcasting Authority. Before he became acting finance minister, Olmert then wearing only the Industry, Trade and Labor hat pushed for creating a commission to overhaul Israel's staid public broadcasting system. It was even headed by his Trade Ministry Director-General Ra'anan Dinur. The reorganization proposals involve numerous upheavals in the management, budgeting, employment and supervision at Israel's publicly owned electronic media. But perhaps most important, yet least noticed and discussed, is the plan for an independent state-supported Arab TV channel. An all-Arab channel was long glaringly absent, and quite incomprehensibly so, from Israel's broadcasting complex. Given the debut of influential giants like Al-Jazeera, or even an al-Qaida media venture, it's all the more perplexing that Israel wouldn't even try to make its voice heard in the region in which it has tenaciously been struggling to survive. This wasn't always so. In previous decades Israel's Arabic broadcasts were listened to even by the most inimical of our neighbors and they were trusted as incomparably more truthful than anything spouted by bombastic Arabic channels. Yet at some point perhaps for lack of funds, understanding or interest Israel apparently gave up on broadcasting its story and version of events. This is an omission not only regarding the wider Arab world but also our Israeli Arab citizens. They must make do with bits and pieces during non-prime-time hours on different IBA television outlets. As a result of this unfortunate lethargy, during the entire bloody intifada unleashed five years ago, Israel's voice was for all intents and purposes unheard in the Arabic-speaking world. We do not for a minute delude ourselves that, had it been broadcast, it could have radically changed events. Yet someone might have tuned in. To lose by default isn't an option that a beleaguered democracy should even entertain. Therefore, if the projected reform seriously indicates any redirection, as opposed to lip service for Arabic broadcasts, we welcome it heartily. Nevertheless, in the same breath with which we support what can be perceived as a somewhat more outer-directed orientation, we must stress that it's hardly enough. We would like to also see openmindedness in regard to English-language broadcasts and a realization that Israel's voice must be heard, and far more effectively so, in the Western world. English, it should not need pointing out, is the world's lingua franca. If Israel's message is to get any sort of hearing, there must be unprecedented emphasis on English-language broadcasts. Moreover, what there is should be freely available and not offered to paying subscribers only. Again, we don't delude ourselves that more and better-quality English broadcasts would instantly improve Israel's PR in the international community. This can hardly be expected, especially not in the age of global information glut, when broadcast media aren't necessarily the first or the exclusive news-purveyors, and where Israel's case might anyway be denied the resonance it fairly deserves. All the above notwithstanding, however, not to try to earnestly and optimally compete on the broadcast battlefield is astonishingly foolish, if not irresponsible. As with the Arabic-language broadcasts, there are foreign audiences but also ones far closer. Quality English-language broadcasts should also be geared to our own far-flung Jewish family. It would be uplifting indeed if today's IBA remembers the role yesteryear's Kol Yisrael played in a variety of languages to serve the entire Jewish people, not just those of its members residing in the Jewish homeland. Via a refurbished IBA, as distinct from the currently troubled and cash-strapped one, Israel can theoretically revolutionize the way it addresses the outside world. Sadly, Israeli politicians haven't of late considered this worthwhile. This may auger ill, despite the hopes generated by the Dinur Committee. Reform plans are encouraging, but actually implementing them requires legislating a new IBA law. That's where previous reformist goodwill floundered. Few today remember plans to reform the IBA produced by the Livni and Vardi commissions, whose proposals ended up gathering dust.