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Herb Keinon: Hometown boy makes good as diplomatic correspondent

Herb Keinon, a resident of Ma’ale Adumim settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, explains his rationale for living there and the military significance of the region. (Joe Howell)In a coffee shop in his native city, as a Denver spring blizzard howls outside, Herb Keinon contemplates the roads not taken.

More than two decades ago, with a brand new master’s degree in journalism in his pocket, he chose to head for Israel, over any number of other options that might have been open to him.

“It’s amazing,” he says, sipping coffee and staring at the Colorado snow. “Sometimes I think I might have gotten a job at the Topeka Standard, or whatever the name of the paper is. I would have been covering city council.”

Instead, he landed a job as a copy editor at the Jerusalem Post, a job which turned into reporter for a weekly supplement, then reporter for the main daily edition, up to the present day, when his business card carries the title of diplomatic correspondent.

Translation: That’s a frontline job at a frontline newspaper in a frontline city in a frontline country.

Covering the doings of prime ministers, foreign heads of state and ambassadors; observing and analyzing peace processes, wars and their aftermaths, the struggles and aspirations of entire communities — these are the subjects that have occupied the major part of his professional life.

“I’ve had the privilege of covering major, history making stories,” Keinon says, journalistically summarizing the whole experience. “And it’s a real privilege.”

Keinon speaks rapidly and directly, as many journalists do, and like many who spend their lives covering the news he’s instinctively adept at directing attention outward, away from himself.

Thus, he dispenses with his biographical details efficiently and methodically: Born and raised in Denver; worshiped at Beth Joseph; earned a BA from CU and an MA from the University of Illinois-Champaign; moved to Israel in the mid-80s and has been living there ever since, married for more than 20 years and is the father of four.

This fall, his first book will be published — Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders From Around The World — which deals with Jewish youths from outside Israel who volunteer to serve in Israel’s armed services.

“It’s about who these people are, why they come, what their motivations are,” says Keinon, enthusiastic about this significant expansion of his writing career.

Going back to the dawn of that career, he mentions a hometown note, a youthful stint he served as an intern at the Intermountain Jewish News, answering telephones and writing business letters.

“Answering the phones at the IJN notwithstanding,” he says with a laugh, “the Jerusalem Post was my first journalism job.”

But he’d known considerably earlier that journalism was his calling.

At CU, he started out as a political science major.

“At a certain point, I realized that the only thing I could do was to write,” Keinon says.

“It was the one thing I was relatively okay at. I was never big at math or science.  I worked for a little while in public relations in Israel and decided I didn’t like it. So I thought, how can I write and make a living doing it? At that time, journalism was still an option.”

His starting place, the Jerusalem Post was an excellent training ground, not only in journalism but in learning the ropes of Israeli life.

Keinon’s work at the newspaper’s local supplement involved “covering all kinds of stuff, city hall, police, a lot of politics. I covered a couple of murders. I covered a lot of ultra-Orthodox, chasidim and haredim in Jerusalem — all strictly Jerusalem news, and a lot of features.”

In 1990, he moved on to the big paper, the daily edition of the Post. He started out covering immigration and absorption — lots of news about Russian and Ethiopian Jews — and then moved on to the “settlement beat,” covering Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Today, as diplomatic correspondent, he does a lot of features, news analyses, daily hard news and a monthly column.

“It’s an extremely small staff,” he says, “so you do a lot.”

Keinon says he doesn’t speak for the newspaper per se, but figures that after 24 years he’s earned the right to voice his opinion — about the paper itself, about media in Israel and about his perceptions of Israel’s future — all of which he readily does.

Keinon places his own newspaper close to, and just to the right of, Israel’s political center.

Although once derided by the ultra-rightist Rabbi Meir Kahane as the “Palestine Post,” today’s Jerusalem Post has moved considerably toward conservatism, he says.

“Roughly until 1990, it was the Histadrut paper, a Labor Party newspaper. After that it was sold to an owner who made it into a strong right-wing paper, and then it was sold again. Now we’re pretty much middle right. We’re centrist but leaning right.”

He provides a thumbnail sketch of Israel’s newspaper panoply.

“If we’re center right, I think you could say Ha’aretz is hard left, Yediot Achronot is center left, Ma’ariv is maybe center — a little more right than Yediot — and there’s a new newspaper now, a freebie, called Yisrael Hayom, and that’s right-wing.”

The Jerusalem Post is an English language paper (although it now also publishes the Israel Post, a supplemental free edition in Hebrew) and the bulk of its readers are English speakers. Its readership also tends to have a high percentage of German immigrants, Keinon says.

It is far from Israel’s biggest or most powerful paper, he adds, but its online edition has greatly expanded its influence in recent years.

“The advent of the Internet has changed us dramatically. The Internet has allowed us to punch way, way above our rank. It’s given us a lot more influence and exposure than we’ve ever had before.”

Keinon, who is modern Orthodox in religious terms, also tends toward moderate conservatism in political terms, but he says that he does his best to keep those ideologies separate from his professional work.

“Look, I’m a reporter, so my opinions don’t go into my writing,” he says. “Even when I write analyses this is true. There’s a difference between analysis and op-ed. I’ll never come out and say that this is what I think.”

On the other hand, he respects the Post for having never sought to constrain his editorial or reportorial perspectives.

“I have never been told, both when this was a left-wing paper and when it was a right-wing paper and now in its current configuration, what to say,” Keinon says. “Nobody has ever dictated to me what to write.”

He adds that he has never found any shortage of things to write about. Israel is one of the world’s top media centers, with an omnipresent army of international print, broadcast and Internet reporters.

As one of the top correspondents for a major hometown press, Keinon clearly enjoys the bird’s-eye view his job provides him.

“The news cycle in Israel is like nowhere else in the world. Just the pace of every day is incredible. Look at just this year. We’ve had a war, we had elections, we had a prime minister who resigned under a cloud of scandal, we’ve had an economic crisis.”

Keinon speaks regularly to Israel’s movers and shakers, and a fair number of international leaders as well, but he keeps a modest perspective on his level of access.

His queries to prime ministers and others are returned because he represents a major Israeli newspaper, “but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m calling these guys on the phone like best friends. That’s not the way it is. But I do have access to their people.”

He says that since the Post is an English language paper, the powers-that-be in Israel often go to the Hebrew dailies first, simply because that’s the most effective way to reach the majority of the population.

“He wants the biggest bang for his buck,” Keinon says of such figures as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“And it’s the same thing when Hillary Clinton comes to Israel. If she’s got time for one interview, who is she going to give it to? Is she going to give it to us or is she going to reach out to the big audience, to the Hebrew papers?”

On the other hand, the Jerusalem Post has a respectably wide readership, not to mention an international readership that Israel’s other papers can’t match.

“Jewish leadership all over the world reads us,” Keinon says, “so we’re used to convey messages as well.”

Overall, he says, Israel’s newspaper industry is flourishing, unlike many American dailies. He laments the demise of his hometown paper, the Rocky Mountain News, but says that Israel has no parallel for such dire straits.

“I think there’s a greater culture of newspaper reading, a greater culture of reading in general, in Israel,” Keinon says.  “Because it’s real. It’s you, it’s your kids. It’s me.”

He has a suitcase-full of examples of how Israel’s troubles have personal impact. One of his children recently planned a vacation to Sderot, and found it necessary to track the Israeli papers just to know whether Palestinian rockets were falling in the area.

“You don’t want to take a vacation in a place where you might get hit by a rocket, so you have to pay attention to the news. It affects your life.”

He can also recite the names of friends or neighbors who were injured or killed in terrorist attacks. His son is now a soldier, aspiring to serve in an elite combat unit.

It’s all very close to home in Israel, he says. “The news affects you immediately and it impacts you,” Keinon says. “It sits there in the back of your mind and it shapes the way you think.”

Herb Keinon

During his recent trip to Denver, Keinon shared many of those perspectives with an attentive audience at the Hebrew Educational Alliance and summarized them in this interview with the Intermountain Jewish News just after arriving at DIA.

The correspondent paints a portrait of an Israel that has evolved considerably in recent years, away from the optimistic, peace-seeking society of Yitzhak Rabin’s day to a harder, more realistic perspective.

Many Americans, including many American Jews, have not yet caught on to this change, he suggests, but Israel’s elections earlier this year provide him with an unmistakable weathervane.

“The country has gone through a tremendous transformation in the last 15 years, since Oslo started in 1993 until today,” Keinon says. 

“Just politically, the transformation has been incredible. In 1992, on the eve of Oslo, the classical left-wing parties, Labor and Meretz, had 56 seats. In the last election they got 16. So what happened?”

The answer is simple, he says: continued terrorism.

“Israel tried Oslo. That failed. They tried Camp David. That failed. They tried disengagement. That failed. When you hit somebody in the nose for so long, they finally wake up and say, ‘Something’s not working.’”

Israelis today, fatigued with repeated failure, seem to be opting “to look reality in the face,” Keinon says. “I think that’s the main message of the elections.”

The crucial wake-up call came in 2000, Keinon says, during the last serious peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

“In 2000, Barak went to Camp David and pretty much offered up the farm — 95% of the territory — to the Palestinians and his answer was the worst violence that the country had ever faced. That was the wake-up call.”

Today, as analysts weigh President Obama’s insistence on a two-state solution against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reluctance to commit to that idea, the world must understand that Israel is seeing things differently, Keinon says.

“To understand Israel, to understand everything the government does, you have to understand the sense of insecurity that everybody in the country lived under from 2000 until 2005. I cannot stress that enough.

“You want to know why Israel does what it does? Just ask the parents who put their kids on a bus to go to school. And everybody felt it. Everybody. It wasn’t just something out there in the newspaper.

“I’m a newspaper man, I get three newspapers to my door every morning. There were days I made sure to go out and get the papers before my kids did because I didn’t want these images embedded in their mind. Everybody personally knew people who were affected.

“It radically changed the way the country views its future, its government and what it expects its government can do.”

In many ways it was, he agrees, an end of innocence.

“The innocence of the belief that you can solve the conflict,” he elaborates.

“Israel had gotten to the position, with Rabin in 1992, that it thought it could actually solve the problem. Barak at Camp David thought he could solve the conflict, and end the conflict.”

It’s not going to happen the way Rabin and Barak envisioned, Keinon insists.

“There’s got to be a fundamental change of attitudes on the other side before we can solve the problem, and that’s going to take generations. We can’t solve it, but we can manage it.”

The much-discussed “two-state solution,” therefore, will have to wait, in Keinon’s view.

“When the US says a two-state solution, I think the US would like to see a two-state solution,” he says. “As would most Israelis, if they believed that they would really have peace; that if we leave the territories we’re not going to get Kassams on our houses.”

Israelis aren’t expecting total peace and cooperation, such as Scandinavian countries enjoy. They would be happy to settle for “an absence of violence.”

Even Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who espouses the two-state goal, doesn’t mean that such an idea should be implemented immediately, says Keinon, who feels that if Livni had won the election her approach to peace would not be fundamentally different from Netanyahu’s.

“Everybody realizes that it’s impossible. Everybody knows that it’s a pipe dream to think that today there’s going to be a two-state solution. Maybe in the future. Then the question is how do we get there.”

A number of foundational changes will have to take place first, he says.

“We can make an agreement now and then put it on a shelf and say that when the Palestinians get their house in order then we can take the deal off the shelf and implement it.

“But they’re not ready for it now. Forget it. You have to build up the Palestinian society, transform Palestinian society. You have to build institutions that work.

“You have to build a security institution that works so that they can fight the terrorists and don’t get overrun. You have to build an economy so that they have a stake in that economy so they won’t want to see violence overrun it.”

Most important, Keinon adds, will be a Palestinian acceptance of the idea of a Jewish state.

“They going to have to realize that Israel has a right to live in the area. Before you do that, you can’t impose an agreement because the people won’t accept it. So Netanyahu is trying to work from the bottom up.

“If the world really wanted it to work, and didn’t just want empty slogans, they have to reevaluate it. They have to look at what the questions are and answer them.”

Keinon isn’t despairing that this new reality means a stalemate or confrontation between Israel and the US.”

“Obama is saying two-state solution. Bibi can’t say two-state solution because of domestic political realities, so what does he say? He says, ‘I don’t want to rule over the Palestinians. And they can have complete authority over their lives except for the elements that could threaten mine.’

“So what he’s talking about is a state minus, some kind of new entity that doesn’t really exist in the world today. A state, but without some of the trappings of statehood, such as being demilitarized, not being able to enter into treaties with countries like Iran, not having complete control of their airspace, not having complete control over their water.

“I think his goal is to get a state too, but it’s kind of a state minus. The job that I think he’s trying to do as prime minister is to try to bridge that gap between the state minus and Obama’s idea of a state.”

No amount of American-Israeli diplomacy will even begin to work, however, until the Palestinians come to the table with a new outlook.

“It’s all largely hypothetical, because until you solve this problem among the Palestinians, it’s all talk,” he says.

Leaving aside Israeli journalism for a moment, Keinon briefly discusses one of the main challenges of simply being an Israeli.

“People in the States don’t realize that it’s not easy to raise kids without being consumed by two things,” he says.

“One is fear and the other is hatred. Because they’re surrounded by it. And to hear the mantras you hear in the US — ‘not all Palestinians are terrorists’ — is a hard sell  to an adolescent who sees things in black and white shades and sees that there are people trying to blow him up. I don’t want my kids to be poisoned by that atmosphere. It’s bad for them.”

Israel is a tough environment, he adds, but as a father — and also, to an extent, as a journalist — he considers it a prerogative to emphasize that Israel is also much more than that.

Despite the violence and stress that are part of life in Israel, it remains a culture that constantly strives to maintain its values and ethics, and to keep a positive outlook.

Life in Israel, despite its challenges, is far from bleak, Keinon says.

“It’s not like living in Sparta. Israel remains a nation of incredible vitality and vibrancy and resilience. This is what makes Israel so incredible. It is dealing with this situation and retaining its vibrancy and its humanity. It’s a good place.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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