Interview: Chaim Yavin
Over 40 years, Chaim Yavin has held every senior position worth holding—producer, director, foreign correspondent and longtime anchor—at Mabat, Israel’s leading, and for many years only, television news program.
He defined the nation’s news agenda and was known in Israel as “Mr. Television” as well as the country’s Walter Cronkite. Yavin, 75, stepped down this year, and is today creating a one-man documentary series on the challenges facing the Jewish state.
Q. As the nation’s leading newsman for four decades, what was the single most historically important development you witnessed and reported on?
A. I must reply with two, one happy and one sad. The visit [in 1977 by Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat was amazingly invigorating. This occurred just a few days after I took over as head of the TV news division. There was no precedent for such an archenemy about to arrive. It was a shock, an earthquake. I thought I was dreaming. I got a call from the prime minister’s office saying [Sadat] was to arrive on November 17. I laughed and answered, ‘Yes, and we are all flying to the moon.’
Q. I think I know what the other event was, the sad one.
A. Yes, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. I felt that something precious in Israel died along with him. It was not only the assassination of a prime minister but the killing of a Jewish prime minister by a fellow Jew. Rabin was the image we all have of a sabra. He spoke directly, had his occasional crude moments. It’s said he drank a bit. He had his share of misfortunes. Yet his death at the hands of a religious Jew was a terrible shock for everyone. [When I heard] he had been shot, I rushed to the studio…. I heard in my earpiece as I was reporting the events to the nation that he was dead, but that we could not announce it yet. Of course, nothing was scripted, I was just talking. I finally got the go-ahead but could not physically bring myself to say he was dead. I chose words to the effect that ‘Prime Minister Rabin is no longer among the living.’ I was numb. Many years later, I had cause to review the tapes from that evening, and I suddenly burst into tears. It all finally hit me.
Q. What has been the single most profound change in Israeli society since independence?
A. Certainly the biggest change is that today, at 60, we are 7 million Jews here. I remember in 1948, as a teenager, we had less than 500,000. My aunt visited from the States and wanted to issue an affidavit for me offering to protect me in case of disaster so I could flee to America. That was a common perception by many people. I was full of chutzpa and told her to go to her home, she was wrong, we were going to beat the Arabs. Where this confidence came from, I have no idea. In truth, people here were afraid.
Q. I understand you are working on a series about Israel’s Arab minority, to be aired this summer on Channel 2.
A. They are 20 percent of our state, they are citizens. Unless and until we give them their full rights, I am convinced that peace and tranquillity will elude us. And it is possible to extend these rights to them. I’m not saying this will turn us into an Arab state. On the contrary, we must insist that [they] recognize that this is a Jewish state.
Q. What about the Palestinians in the territories?
A. Hopefully, if we have two states for two peoples, we will be able to make it all work. I am optimistic and think we have already overcome some vast difficulties.
Q. What is the next challenge on the horizon?
A. Shimon Peres is right. It is the Negev, almost 60 percent of the country, inhabited by less than 10 percent of the population. A few years ago, I would have laughed at calls by Peres and others to ‘green the Negev.’ It’s a desert, after all. But science and motivated people are working wonders to change this.
Q. Who was the most effective and impressive international leader you’ve seen up close?
A. Believe it or not, President [Richard] Nixon comes to mind. I was a TV correspondent in [Washington] in those years. I met and covered him personally. He was a very tall guy, most people don’t realize that. He was a chilly individual, not very sympathetic. He was deep in Watergate already, under intense pressure. Frankly, I worried that he might hit the button some day were he ever to reach a breaking point and crack. Precisely in those days, he did great things for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. If not for him, I don’t know what the results of that war would have been. Israel owes him a tremendous debt.
Q. Which Israeli leader was the smartest, the one current politicians should strive to emulate?
A. I must come back to Rabin. I don’t want my kids and grandkids to live with war day in, day out. Rabin started the ball rolling with the Oslo [peace] process. Sure, today everyone points to it as an abject failure, but Rabin began it, and a compromise with the Palestinians must be reached at some point. What began at Oslo is very much here today and in the future, though few admit it and no one dares label it as Oslo. Second, I must cite Menahem Begin. I was continuously with him in the election campaign in which he beat Peres, and he was an artist in speaking to the people. He possessed an intensity of character and had an unmatched ability to reach out to the masses. He was a true democrat, unlike Ben-Gurion, who was more of a dictator, although a dictator by consent.
Q.What media model should Israel aspire to?
A. It’s no great wisdom to imitate the Americans—the entertainment and commercialization route. Following the British BBC model is less sexy, but the idea of the public supporting broadcasting with their funds is something that makes the equation most interesting. It’s more challenging than simply selling time to the highest bidder and sparing no effort to pump out fun, fun, fun, because that’s what the people crave.
Q.Many Americans believe journalists are largely left of center. Is there a bias in the Israeli media?
A. There are many answers to this, starting with the nature of TV. The camera practically exists to turn the person suffering into a hero. In Vietnam, in Africa, in Gaza, you find the man who is suffering and you tell his story. The camera is drawn to him…. The second factor is that the majority of the people who created Israel’s TV—in fact, the majority who created everything in Israel—came from the center left. They were the Ashkenazi elite, educated and motivated. They ran TV, the press and the country for many years. It was soft socialism as embodied in the Labor movement and Labor Party.
Q. And today?
A. Around 20 years ago, things started changing. It was a slow change, but you had fewer of the Old Guard and a more diverse assortment of media people. More olim, more people from the right. Today, there is a mixture…. The center and right reporters instinctively try to portray [Israelis] as good people trying to do good. They also show how many Arabs are doing bad things. In a way, they are right. In Gaza, Hamas beating up on Fatah is a bad thing. If [Hamas] can’t run Gaza and [they] shoot rockets into Sderot, this is a really negative situation caused by the other side. What can the left say to that? The right is right. So the left today seems quiet, even speechless at times.
Q. Ideology aside, how do you envision the path to peace?
A. We must at least attempt to deal with the Arabs. We can’t win this thing by sheer force. They have a certain amount of force as well. We think we won this war, that war, that should be it. But that’s not it. Force cannot terminate force, rather it begets more force. Two sides must find a way out together. Can the Arabs today do that? I honestly don’t know. Are they ready to compromise? It is a good question that I cannot answer, but any alternative I can think of is worse.