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Conversation with David Horovitz

Founding editor of The Times of Israel

By Cindy Mindell

British-born Israeli journalist, author, and speaker David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel, a current-affairs website based in Jerusalem that launched in February 2012. He was editor of The Jerusalem Post from 2004 to 2011 and of The Jerusalem Report from 1998 to 2004.

Horovitz has also written from Israel for newspapers around the world, including  The New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  The Irish Times and The Independent (London). He has been a frequent TV and radio interviewee on the Israel Broadcasting Authority, CNN, the BBC, NPR, among other outlets. He is the author of Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism (Knopf, 2004) and A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel (Knopf, 2000), and co-author of Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin (William Morrow, 1996).

In 1995, Horovitz received the B’nai B’rith World Center award for journalism for his coverage of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. In 2005, he received the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee award for journalism on Israel and Diaspora affairs.

Recently, he gave the Ledger an insider’s perspective on recent developments in the Middle East.

 

Q: Americans are currently consumed by our presidential election-campaign season. What do Israelis think of the various candidates?

A: Israel is following the campaign pretty closely. When Israelis look at American presidential candidates, I think they look at two things: one is a certain empathy for Israel. The second is an understanding of how ruthless this region can be — which is why, I think, when you had a choice between McCain and Obama, simply because McCain had learned, terribly, how evil men can be, whereas Obama, mercifully, had not, on a very personal level for Israelis that would have been an obvious “Let’s take the person who won’t need the learning curve” choice. In looking at this campaign, I think that those are the criteria for Israelis.

In polls, Israelis trend in the direction of Clinton. Sanders had every possibility to be liked and supported by Israelis: he’s the only candidate who’s Jewish; he spent time on kibbutz. I thought the speech he said he would have given via satellite if AIPAC had let him was very under-informed. Then he gave two interviews in which he threw around seven-times inflated numbers for the Gaza death toll, and a couple of days later, had not checked the corrected figure and was still giving an inflated figure for the civilian deaths by citing the overall death toll in Gaza. To assert that you support Israel and Israelis’ right to security, and then say that the security blockade on Gaza should be cancelled, when that blockade is to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry to fire at Israelis — it’s just not serious. I certainly have been disappointed by the lack of rigor in his positions on Israel and I suspect that Israelis who’ve looked closely have reached similar conclusions.

Regarding the Republican candidates, I think that is more a function of where you stand politically in Israel. The two most widely-read Hebrew tabloids in Israel are Yisrael Hayom and Yediot Ahronot. Yisrael Hayom, a free newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson and for which Netanyahu can do no wrong, has been very gung-ho on Trump. Yediot Ahronot is the most-read for-sale tabloid for whom Netanyahu can do no right and it has been much less adulatory where Trump is concerned. There’s probably some wariness in Israel about Trump simply as somebody who has been extremely outspoken about minorities in the United States, and this is the Jewish state.

On the other hand, looking at the AIPAC conference, for example, the audience there was gradually but quite easily won over by Trump in the course of his speech. For some Israelis, it’s nice to hear a candidate who says very nice things about Israel.

 

Q: Do you think the U.S. and other Western countries should be taking a more active role in stemming the instability now shaking several Middle Eastern countries?

A: The free world makes a mistake if it thinks it cannot engage very seriously with this region. Israel is obviously the only stable democracy in this part of the world and people need to internalize that we are on the front lines of war against various regimes and ideologies that are really death-cult regimes, regimes that are out to kill and be killed, as opposed to live and let live. There’s a danger in wanting not to get caught up in conflict – which is completely understandable – that the free world lets things heat up to a greater level. In 2009, you had people in Iran that were trying to oust their regime and had no intimation of support from the U.S.-led free world. Early in the Syrian civil war, when there was certainly a more influential secular and moderate aspect to the opposition, it got insufficient support. If you look at Egypt now, where you see a country teetering between maybe a more stable future and maybe a descent again into Islamic extremism, I wonder if the free world is doing enough to give the leadership there the chance to feed its own people and create some stability, when the alternative is the growing appeal in a bleak reality of Islamic extremism.

When we look at the refugee problem now facing Europe, part of it is that, if hundreds of thousands of your countrymen are being killed in Syria, at some point, you have to leave because you’re being massacred and nobody’s lifting a finger to help you. And as you leave in large numbers, some pretty bad people may come with you. Therefore, Europe has this terrible dilemma and the United States is starting to look at and internalize that dilemma.

The desire to stay out of Syria has boomeranged. Where it plays out now, I don’t know. Were there policies that could have been more effective? I don’t have a perfect formula. But as somebody much smarter than me has been given to say, “The Middle East is the dinner guest that won’t go home.” If you don’t internalize that, it’s going to be with you in an even more problematic way than if you try and grapple with it early in the processes. For example, having faced down the West, Iran is a regime entrenched in power, getting lots more money that I think will just constitute a greater and greater problem because the nuclear deal, for example, did not tackle Iran in the way that I think that it could have done.

In Israel, we are obsessing about Iran. They test missiles with “Israel must be wiped out” written on them. This is a regime that has been emboldened by a deal that we’re convinced could have been better. Israel did not want military intervention; we think their nuclear program could and should have been dismantled, and we’re a little baffled as to where that went, because that’s what the world was supposed to be doing: it was going to neutralize and dismantle and it wound up freezing and inspecting and, we fear, not doing either of those effectively enough.

 

Q: What can American Jews do now to help Israel?

A: I’m not sure how fast or serious the trend is, but I certainly am concerned by the rising hostility to Israel on a growing number of American university campuses. Having spent my first 20 years in London, I can see a similar process, where it used to be one or two universities that you would be wary of sending your kids to, and then it became just a few where you would comfortably send your kids in Britain – I see a similar process potentially occurring in America and the students of today are the thought leaders, politicians, journalists, and so on of 10 and 20 years from now.

I don’t think Israel is perfect by any means but I think the more time one spends in Israel, the more one examines what Israel is up to, the more one empathizes with it. The British pop singer Elvis Costello cancelled a planned concert in Israel a few years ago because he said that he wouldn’t have been able to turn a blind eye to what Israel does to the Palestinians. My response was and would be, nobody wants you to turn a blind eye to anything. Come to Israel, spend two weeks in Israel, two weeks in the West Bank, two weeks in Gaza if you can do so safely, and I’m pretty convinced that by the time you end your trip, at the very least, you’ll say to yourself, “More complicated than I thought,” and more likely, you’ll say to yourself, “Actually, I really underestimated the challenges that Israel faces.”

I recently spoke to a group that came here formed of anti-apartheid activists from South Africa on the last day of their trip, and I was actually worried that they were too pro-Israel. It was as though they hadn’t seen enough and nobody had injected any kind of complexity into the narrative. But no: they had actually spent time in Ramallah and had met with Palestinian leaders, and they were really unimpressed by the people they had met on the Palestinian side, and I don’t want to get carried away here, but they were pretty won over by the people they met on the Israeli side, and these were people who came from a background that would have made them skeptical.

I happen to think that the best advert for Israel is Israel. Come here, spend some time here, speak to people from across the spectrum, read and watch as widely as you can, from as many sources as you can. I think the more sophisticated your take on Israel, the more you will empathize with Israel. We need people who can offer an honest narrative of what’s going on here. So what can American Jewry do for Israel? Find out as much as you can and tell people about it.

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