Wanted: A local Bill Maher

Maher: How dare the world urge Israeli restraint after Hizbullah's unprovoked and deadly attack.

bill maher (photo credit: courtesy photo)
bill maher
(photo credit: courtesy photo)
The Foreign Ministry would do well to watch HBO's Bill Maher to learn how to sell Israel's case to a television audience. Maher, considered a leftist in the US, may just be a smart comedian, but he gets his arguments across succinctly and scores points with millions of television viewers. Interviewed by CNN's Larry King this week, he decried the hypocrisy of the international community during Israel's recent war against Hizbullah. How dare the world urge Israeli restraint after Hizbullah abducted and killed IDF soldiers in an unprovoked attack, and then rained rockets on Israel's northern cities, Maher declared. If a terrorist group had done the same across the US border with its northern neighbor, Canada, he said, "Bush would nuke 'em before breakfast." According to Maher, who is neither Jewish nor a fan of the American president, "The world is Mel Gibson" - a reference to the actor's anti-Semitic slurs after being caught driving drunk in Malibu. "Yes, liquor releases demons," Maher said. "But I want to know why the demon in Mel Gibson is hatred of the Jews to begin with?" The international community, the way Maher sees it, applies double standards to Jews: After the Holocaust, it asked why Jews had not fought back. And now it tells them to stop fighting back. Is the world really against the Jews, and were the media actually biased against Israel during its war against Hizbullah? A TNS Teleseker poll of 25,000 people in 33 countries published in Ma'ariv on Wednesday found that although 45 percent believed the IDF offensive in Lebanon had constituted an overreaction, 36% backed Israel and only 17% supported Hizbullah in the war itself. Topping the list of pro-Israel countries was, predictably, the US, where 48% said they supported Israel and only 4% Hizbullah. In contrast, 92% of Moroccans said they were on Hizbullah's side compared to 3% for Israel. What role did journalists have in forming these opinions? Most studies indicate that the media may help define public opinion, but they mostly reinforce existing views. At a "town meeting" on the coverage of the Lebanon war in Jerusalem this week, the members of a panel of foreign and local reporters strongly defended themselves against charges of bias: the Israelis for supposed jingoist flag-waving, and the foreigners for allegedly not providing balanced coverage of southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Israel Radio director Yoni Ben-Menahem cited an article by Rafik Halabi in Ha'aretz that had dubbed Al-Jazeera television as "Hizbullah's spokesman." Al-Jazeera not only aired video showing where Katyusha rockets had hit and "presented a distorted picture of what was going on," Ben-Menachem argued, it broadcast news of soldiers' deaths before their families had been informed. Al-Jazeera's Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid Omary, responded that his station had relayed live press conferences of Israeli politicians and IDF officers, and had done its best to cover the damage caused by Hizbullah rocket attacks on northern Israel. But, he claimed, there had been a systematic Israeli campaign against his TV crews, who were detained four times for "giving information to the enemy" while trying to report on rocket landings. In one case, he said, they were charged with reporting the fact that a rocket had fallen in Kafr Yasif, to the east of Acre. He got a laugh from the large audience in the YMCA auditorium when he asked, "You think Hizbullah was waiting for Walid Omary to tell them where Kafr Yasif is?" Omar made a good point. Israel can't have it both ways: allowing freedom of the press, but restricting journalists from doing their jobs. But which other countries in the Middle East allow so much freedom? And ironically, Al-Jazeera may be one of the only Arabic channels to even broadcast an Israeli point of view. Unfortunately, Israel has yet to demonstrate a strategic approach to arguing its case on the media battlefield - an approach which requires the definition of key goals and messages, advancing them in key forums, coordination between the relevant hierarchies and the hiring of the most effective spokespeople in a range of foreign languages, most crucially English and Arabic. And instead of blaming the international media for one-sided coverage, Israel might consider searching for a local Bill Maher.