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At GA, general holds court

Aluf Benn, Haaretz editor-in-chiefAS journalists and GA delegates converge upon the 16Mix watering hole at the Sheraton Hotel Sunday evening, Aluf Benn observes the commotion with eagle eyes and a cryptic smile.

Many people nudge right past the newly appointed editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Israel’s classiest daily newspaper and host of tonight’s presentation, “Telling Israel’s Story.”

Attired in a dark semi-casual suit, refraining from the perfunctory meet-and-greet ritual and virtually motionless in the shadows, the 46-year-old Benn shuns the limelight — until he suddenly starts attracting non-stop attention.

“Hi, I’m an aspiring journalist.” “Hello, we met at a conference in 1992.” “Do you remember me? We only talked for a minute, but . . .”

Some people wonder how this slight, unassuming giant will speak above the deafening din of drink orders and high decibel chatter.

Aluf means “General” in Hebrew. Whether this is his nickname at Haaretz is anyone’s guess, but Benn instinctively commands respect.

Born Aluf Bomstein in 1965 in Ramat HaSharon, he is the son of Atida and Aryeh Bomstein, the 2010 Israel Prize Poet Laureate.

Named Aluf in memory of his uncle General Horowitz, who was killed in action in the Gaza Strip in 1955, he Hebraicized his surname to Benn in 1986.

Benn began his journalism career at Ha’Ir and in 1989 moved to Haaretz, where he variously worked as night editor, investigative reporter, head of the news division and opinion editor.

More coverage of the GA from Andrea Jacobs

He was elevated to editor-in-chief in August of this year.

Following a brief introduction, Benn clips an amplification device to his lapel and surveys the room. He doesn’t require notes, a podium or even a glass of water. Everything he needs resides in his remarkable brain.

Conversations suspend mid-sentence. Drinks are temporarily neglected. Hungry appetites return bowls of nuts and pretzels to their rightful place along the bar.

“This my second visit to Denver,” Benn says in a deliberate voice that moves where passion dictates. “I was here exactly 17 years ago at the GA, traveling with the late Prime Minister Rabin.

“I was reminded earlier today that at the time, whenever we flew with the prime ministers” — he has covered six — “I would raise my finger and ask about the Iranian nuclear program. The other correspondents were like, ‘Again with the nuclear issue question? It’s nonsense. Leave it alone.’”

Benn did not leave things alone. He worked his sources and wrote articles no one else pursued.

Although headlines are mutable animals, Benn has remained true to his instincts, and himself.

For the next 21 minutes, he discusses Iran, a huge shift in Israeli journalism, the potential for a third Palestinian intifada and Israel’s social democracy revolt.

He also questions whether North American Jewry’s right-left debate over the Jewish state has anything to do with “Israel as we feel it, but rather some idea of Israel.”

Losing military secrecy

IRAN is back in the headlines with a bang. Forceful pronouncements by Israeli officials and ex-officials that Israel is contemplating an Iran strike have unleashed speculative shudders throughout the Jewish state.

Benn says the Iran issue “is interesting both from the essential point of view and the media point of view. First, this is the most crucial decision an Israeli government has to make — whether to bomb Iran to try and stop or defer the inevitable threat of their nuclear bombs, as Israel did in the past with Iraq and later Syria.

“I’ll give you my two cents,” he says. “I don’t think we will bomb Iran, but there are military preparations. The prime minister and the defense minister are serious about this. But there’s so much talking about it — and when you talk so much, you lose your secrecy, your military surprise.

“Then again, many wars erupted when leaders signed blank political checks, and the time came when their peers, competitors and rivals said, ‘You promised us such and such, and now it’s time to deliver.’

“I don’t think this will happen tomorrow,” he qualifies. “I think the pressure is meant to prompt the Western powers — the US and others — to deal more effectively with Iran, especially after a year of focusing solely on the Arab Spring.

“But talking too much about bombing Iran might force you to do it in the future, so I would not discount it.”

Israeli journalism, heavily patrolled by cautious military censors, is undergoing a major metamorphosis that is already redefining the profession, he says.

“In the past, we could not write about an Israeli ballistic missile presence. Even the world ‘ballistic missiles’ were erased by the censors. Missile tests were replaced by euphemisms like ‘space launch vehicle’ or ‘new weapons system’ or ‘new technological capabilities.’

“Now it’s all out in the open,” he says. “You can name the ministers who are in favor of bombing Iran and which ministers are against it. You can even write about a ballistic missile presence.”

The crisis has transformed “not only the way Israelis think about strategy or policy, but also news coverage,” Benn stresses. “Because if  we forgo ambiguity, we’ll stop covering these stories under the wraps of censorship or buzzwords or codes words.

“We have been fighting for this for many years, and it’s changing right before our eyes — but not because of us or our brave journalistic principles. It’s the ripple effect.”

Palestinian moves for unilateral statehood recognition

IT’S so quiet you can hear the proverbial pin drop — or in this case, an occasional fork or spoon rattling in the bar sink.

The Iran standoff may have displaced the Palestinian issue momentarily, but the Palestinian “situation” will not fade gently into oblivion.

After the Camp David Peace Accords in 2000, Benn says the peace process “slowed down to microscopic movements in a swamp. People didn’t think anything would come out of the peace process.

“But we all know that overnight, the current prime minister can change his heart, change his coalition, look around — like he did on the Gilad Shalit deal — and seriously negotiate with the Palestinians. So you always have to be on watch.”

Benn predicts that instead of more negotiations, Israelis will be on the receiving end of a third intifada.

“The Palestinian side has signed the blank check: ‘We are going to negotiate with the UN, UNESCO, world opinion and declare a state’ — which Israel doesn’t like.”

If the Palestinians are successful “and everybody applauds a Palestinian state, what’s going to happen the next day?” Benn asks. “They will celebrate their diplomatic victory over Israel all night.

“But when they wake up in the morning, they will see the same situation on the ground: the same settlements, the same Israeli occupation, checkpoints, restrictions —and even more so if Israel withholds tax revenues.

“Are they going to be happy about it?” Benn says with a raised eyebrow. “No, the hangover will be very bad for them. The anger and frustration will not be directed against the UN or the US or the rest of the world. It will be directed against Israel.”

And if the Palestinians lose their bid for statehood at the UN, they will feel that the world led them astray and stabbed them in the back. But instead of venting their anger appropriately, they might hit Israel with another intifada.

“So despite the focus on Iran, the most burning problem that was, is, and will be facing Israel is the Palestinian issue,” Benn says. “And we need to be on alert. Is there going to be a third intifada, and what form will it take?

“You know, we say in Hebrew that the atmosphere in Israel” — he rubs his fingers to conjure the proper translation — “is full of gasoline. All we need is a spark.”

Growing tribalization of Israeli society

THE social democracy protests in Israel, which Benn admits he didn’t anticipate, is the third major source of upheaval on the Israeli landscape.

“I was taken by surprise by the revolt this summer,” he shakes his head. “I live a few blocks away from Rothschild Boulevard. My neighborhood became a tent city, a shanty town of young people. It’s no longer there.”

Benn, who was the opinion editor at Haaretz when the movement gained traction, says he had “a couple of columnists who consistently wrote that the main issue in Israel is the lack of social democracy and how we need to rebuild the welfare state.

“Now you have to remember that Israel is the opposite of America, which is built on the free market concept, and the liberals want more government.

“In Israel, the foundation is socialist and the government is the big mama who takes care of everything. The liberals are those who want a free market and privatization — in other words, Bibi Netanyahu.”

The room explodes in laughter.

After the failure of the peace process, there was “a continuous debate in Israel about what can resurrect the political left in Israel,” he says. “One side argued for social democracy, which I thought was mumbo jumbo.”

In a superb twist of irony, the Arab Spring revolutionized Israel’s social democracy revolution, Benn says. A new image of Arab hope entered Israeli living rooms and galvanized the country’s conscience.

“Normally we saw Arabs running after an ambulance or burning Israeli flags. Now the images on our TVs were different. So young people asked themselves why Arabs were willing to risk their lives and their freedom figh

ting for political change while we do nothing?”

The Israeli movement advocated equal housing and economic opportunities, but Benn traces the root motivation to a dream that is no longer accessible to the dreamer.

“In recent years, Israel has gone through a process of tribalization,” he says. “The old mainstream Israel that I grew up in was a translation of a Ben-Gurionistic dream of a strong state where everyone served in the army and supported society. This is gone. Why?

“We went through several waves of change in Israel, but these were always driven by aliyah, by immigration from the outside. For the first time, social change is driven from the inside.

“The two tribes that were left out of Ben-Gurion’s dream, the Arabic speakers and the Orthodox Jews, have large families. They are the majority now. The daughters and sons of the Jews who figured prominently in the old dream feel disenfranchised — and they are the leaders of the Rothschild revolt. This is my interpretation.”

The intended effect on Israeli politics reversed course. Netanyahu took control of the situation and his popularity intensified. Kadima, the opposition leader, suffered the most serious setback. The Labor Party revived.

With less than two minutes to go until the end of his talk, Benn shares an enigmatic smile.

“As always in Israel, we have very interesting news,” he nods. “We’re always on the verge of either war or peace. Now we’ve added social protest.

“This year really highlights the difference in the way Israel is perceived from the outside, and from the inside.”

He points to Haaretz’ two websites — one for English speakers, the other for readers fluent in Hebrew — to illustrate the dichotomy.

“Every day I get a list of the most popular stories on the websites. For our English-speaking readers, it’s always Abbas, Hamas, Netanyahu, Iran,” he says as self-conscious laughter rises.

“Israeli readers want stories about the social protests, science, culture, education, recipes, new restaurants in Tel Aviv, the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum.”

For the past two to three years, Haaretz has monitored the argument in the North American Jewish community over the right of Jews to criticize Israel and support non-status quo positions.

“We feel this debate is not about Israel as we feel it, but some idea of Israel,” Benn says.

“Our quest for normalcy is to be like America or Europe or any developed — or almost developed country.

“But your debate is still about the old Israel fighting for survival.

“So we want to tell you, relax. Read about the other stuff, not just about war and peace. There is more to Israel than that.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer | andrea@ijn.com

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