Israeli and Lebanese Journalists Debate on Kurtz Show

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By: E&P Staff

On his CNN Sunday morning program, “Reliable Sources,” host Howard Kurtz, also of The Washington Post, moderated a kind of debate between two Middle Eastern journalists.

They were Yaron Deckel, Washington bureau chief of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for An-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper.

Here is a nearly all of the transcript of this revealing debate.

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KURTZ: Yaron Deckel, has Israeli media at all questioned this policy of pretty heavy retaliation against Lebanon as this conflict has unfolded? Has there been any dissent or has there been a closing of the ranks?

DECKEL: There is — you can find some questions starting at that point, but I must say that at that point there is a consensus in Israel, and you can see it reflected in the media, that this time Israel was attacked in a sovereign land of Israel by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. And Israel is in a war. So Israel has to defend itself, and that’s the cause.

We know that Hezbollah hides in the civilian neighborhoods in Beirut and in the villages in southern Lebanon. We know that was the aim to be there, and we know there are casualties. Israel regrets the casualties, but you can find the beginning of the question, how long will it take and what’s the goal at the end of day?

KURTZ: Hisham Melhem, same question to you. Have the Lebanese media closed ranks issue behind your countrymen and behind Hezbollah, which of course, has been controversial in Lebanese politics for a long time?

MELHEM: In general the Lebanese media sees the Israeli onslaught as an attack on Lebanon, on Lebanese society, Lebanese infrastructure. And they see also the onslaught directed against the Lebanese media as we’ve seen recently in the bombing of the — of reputable and independent outlets like LBC and Al-Rusatba television.

KURTZ: These are not pro-Hezbollah?

MELHEM: Yes. I mean, the Israelis attacked Al Manar, which represents, as well as an extension of Hezbollah’s propaganda arm, if you will.

KURTZ: What do you make of Israel bombing two independent television stations in Lebanon? Why that was done?

MELHEM: All I can tell you is that the Lebanese see it again as an attempt to keep them in the dark, to keep the Lebanese people in the dark, maybe to keep the Hezbollah leadership in the dark. That could be one of the crazy reasons why the Israelis attack these reputable independent media. So in essence, they are mobilizing the whole Lebanese population against them.

But to go back to the original question, early on in the first few days after the Israeli attack, there were voices in the print media, in my paper and others, by columnists criticizing Hezbollah and taking Nasrallah to task. What gives you the right to drag the country into the abyss without consulting anybody, probably with the exception of your friends in Tehran and Damascus?

KURTZ: He is the leader, of course, of Hezbollah.

MELHEM: He is the leader of Hezbollah. Now, with the intensification of the Israeli bombardment, when someone is hitting you on your head with a hammer, you are not going criticize Hezbollah at this stage.

But in fairness, also, there are other voices in other newspapers and other outlets that are very supportive — supporters — supportive of Hezbollah and focusing only on the Israeli brutality against the Lebanese people.

KURTZ: What is your take on the bombing of the Lebanese television stations? That doesn’t seem to be an action aimed particularly at Hezbollah?

DECKEL: Yes. But if the Hezbollah could be on air on that, or serving them in an indirect way and giving their input, this could be a target.

Not that — well, a war is not a pleasant thing. Look what happened when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We saw a lot of the U.S. Army. And we haven’t seen a lot of the other side, and there were many casualties, both from the Afghanistan people and the Iraqi.

As I said, Israel — and you know, now in Israeli hospitals they do take care of Lebanese people from Southern Lebanon to treat them in the medical center in Northern Israel.

KURTZ: You made the comparison to Iraq, but even during the Iraq war and certainly afterwards as that war has dragged on, there has been a lot of criticism of the Bush administration and dissent within the American media, but…

DECKEL: First of all — there is a war and the territory is not under dispute. It’s not that Israel occupies Lebanon. Israel pulled out six years ago.

Look at what happened in the Middle East. Israel pulled out from Lebanon. We got the Hezbollah rockets. Israel pulled out from Gaza. We got the Hamas rockets. Something is wrong here.

KURTZ: Hisham Melhem, what about the fact that Lebanon, a lot of people in the Arab media seem to see Lebanon kind of as an innocent bystander here? Hezbollah attacks some Israeli soldiers, and suddenly the country is being bombarded, a lot of civilian casualties. But isn’t Hezbollah also — have a couple of ministries in the Lebanese cabinet?

MELHEM: Yes.

KURTZ: Hasn’t Lebanon really tolerated the activities of what the U.S. government, at least, regards as a terrorist group?

MELHEM: Just briefly– The Israelis attacked television stations, independent television stations, sometimes and violently disagreed with Hezbollah and with Al Manar and Hezbollah’s policies. So the — it’s very difficult to understand why the Israelis are targeting the media, but then again they are targeting the whole country.

Now, as far as Hezbollah’s representation of the government, I think it was a mistake for the government to accept Hezbollah’s representation in the government without getting concession from Hezbollah to allow the army to be deployed in the south.

You have to keep in mind that this is a fragile government. This is a fragile political order in Lebanon, just barely out of 30 years domination by the Syrians. So we are going through a transitional period. This is a government where you have a decent, moderate, modern man, Fouad Siniora, trying to convince Hezbollah to allow the government to exert control over the Lebanese territories by avoiding civil war, by avoiding taking on Hezbollah in a frontal attack that could split the army along sectarian lines. It’s a very delicate situation.

What the Israelis are doing right now, attacking Hezbollah, but in the end they are unraveling the very political structure in Lebanon that they claim they need so that Lebanon can become healthy.

KURTZ: We’ll leave that debate for another day.

Since you’re both here in Washington, I want to ask you about the American media coverage. Does it seem to you, Yaron Deckel, that the coverage has been fair or, in all honesty, Israel, a long-time U.S. ally, has the coverage been much more sympathetic to the plight of Israel than to the destruction being visited upon Lebanon?

DECKEL: I think we see both sides. You talked to two — a few reporters, both in Lebanon and Northern Israel. We can see both sides. But I do believe that the American people could understand the Israeli side.

I — may I quote Senator John McCain, whom I interviewed this week when he met the Israeli ambassador? And he said, “What would we do, Americans, if Arizona was attacked?” And let me elaborate what would have happened if two U.S. Border Patrol, instead of looking for immigrants, were abducted by Mexico, or San Diego being hit by rockets from Tijuana? What would be the cause? How would the U.S. defend itself when it was attacked? We all remember, there is no need for that.

Now I think most of the people, he understands that Israel didn’t provoke this time.

KURTZ: Right. But there is clearly a question about whether there’s been a disproportionate response.

DECKEL: What is a proportionate response? Abducting two Hezbollah people? That would be a proportional response?

MELHEM: This whole comparison between Canada and Mexico and America doesn’t hold water; it’s silly. There is a situation of peace between Canada and Mexico and America. There’s a situation of conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis.

People think that this began only a few weeks ago. It’s more complex than that.

KURTZ: Right.

MELHEM: The American media is supportive of Israel in general, especially on television. Now in print, the reporters who are working on the field, especially in print, are doing a very good job. Nobody can come close to Anthony Shadid in the Washington Post. He’s a brilliant guy who really gives you the whole tragic situation in Lebanon.

KURTZ: All right. This is a conversation that will continue. We appreciate your being here this morning. Yaron Deckel, Hisham Melhem, thanks very much for joining us.

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