Tuesday, 20 August 2013

A Chat with Boaz Bismuth

The Australian Jewish News recently published an interview with Israeli journalist BOAZ BISMUTH (republished below in full).  Bismuth is used to being the interviewer, and in his extraordinary career, has interviewed the likes of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Bismuth, Foreign News Editor and Senior Analyst at Israel Hayom (Israel’s largest daily newspaper), Senior Fellow at the Bar Ilan Center for International Communications and former Israeli Ambassador to Mauritania, will be speaking twice at A Day at the SJWF: on the Arab Spring and Israeli peace talks 

What are some of the countries you have worked in?
In the Arab League there are 22 countries. I have visited, worked and travelled in 18. It started with, I would say, a misunderstanding between me and my newspaper in Tel Aviv. At the time we had a man called Abie Nathan who was supporting peace in many ways and he went to meet [Yasser] Arafat. At the time there was a law in Israel in which Israelis could not meet PLO leaders. The newspaper meant that I was supposed to cover the story by telephone, and I understood that I should fly there. And as I have a foreign passport, I found myself in Tunisia with PLO members covering the meeting, meeting all the Palestinian leaders. And from Tunisia, that beautiful journey in the Arab world started, because Yemen came after, and Jordan, Syria, and of course not only Arabic countries but also Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iran, all the Gulf countries of course and Kuwait, and of course the Iraqi wars, the first one and the second one.

Do you worry about your safety when in a hostile country?
Sure. Of course there are assignments where I worry more and of course it is obvious if you travel, for example, to Tunisia or Morocco you will be less concerned than if you fly to Libya or to Iraq and especially during the war, or during the Arab Spring when you walk in the street and people shoot around you. But when you believe and you have faith in yourself, and of course in what is above me, then you’re not really alone. In 1996 I got a message from my paper “We’d like you to fly to Lebanon.” At the time we had the military operation with Israel attacking Hezbollah headquarters. Now imagine yourself, an Israeli, finding yourself at the headquarters of Hezbollah, taken there by the driver of the number two of Hezbollah, with Nasrallah nearby. That was fascinating but it can be scary of course because you know that if they find out who you are, then rainy days. On the one hand you’ve got Hezbollah members and on the other hand you’ve got the Israeli helicopters, Apache, just above you, but that’s part of our profession.

Who is the most interesting Arab leader that you’ve interviewed?
Source: Wikipedia
When I started my profession I was always very interested by the Arab world. There was one man that was the head of his state ever since 1969, and his name was [Muammar] Gaddafi. And I found Libya fascinating, a country that you can’t even go inside, no Israeli, no Jew, not any journalists went there. And in 2003 I realised my dream, I saw him in Tunis. One of the biggest scoops I had in my life was when Libya decided to stop its nuclear program, I was the first one, Gaddafi told me that in 2003. It was fascinating to see this man, his way of leading, the way he was surrounded. But he wasn’t the only one, there was also [Bashar] Assad, and of course [former Iranian president Mohammad] Khatami in Iran and of course the biggest story was [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in 2010.

What was it like covering the Arab Spring from within?
Very interesting. You see people really who want change, you see brave and courageous [people]. In Tahrir Square you have a street called Mohammed Mahmoud Street that leads to the Ministry of the Interior. I saw motorcycles with two, three people on them, and some of them came back with only one or two, meaning there were youngsters who did not come back or came back wounded. You have seen people who, for the sake of change, are courageous enough to sacrifice their lives. Yet at the same time you had entering the square, secular party people asking to see your passport. And when you said, “Why do you need to see my passport?”, they would say, “In order to be sure that Israelis are not entering the square.” Unfortunately, one thing is very strong in the Arab Street, [that] is still the misunderstanding, hatred, refusal, denial of what I represent, which is Israel.

What impact do you think new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani will have?
Source: Times of Israel
Khatami was all about dialogue between civilisations, this is going to be a new world, a new era in Iran. Yet during him the enrichment of uranium went onward. So we have been in this movie before. Rowhani is a little bit the same thing, Iran with a smile. This is very dangerous for Israel because Iran will continue with this program in nuclear uranium, but instead of doing it like Ahmadinejad – shouting and screaming and denying the Holocaust – he will do it with a big smile and talking about Facebook. Yet, one big change, because I prefer to be optimistic. So I would say that times have changed. Iranians must also adapt to this changing world. This is an end of an era; a new era is coming. I don’t believe in the Iran leadership, yet I have a lot of respect for the past and future of the Iranian people. And they will make the change.

Will there be peace with the Palestinians?
We have to. We will not be able to send them to Australia; they will not be able to send us to New Zealand. The only problem is we have this crazy equation of two emotional peoples in a rather small piece of land, and the religious element – instead of calming down people, it excites us even more. I do believe that the day when our kids forget why their grandparents or fathers fought, that day we shall really have peace. But still I think we always put the targets too high. We should change our aims, we should go a little bit slower in what we’re targeting.

Interviewed by Garenth Narunsky, Australian Jewish News

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