Cov­er­ing prime min­is­ters: The ro­mance and the bore­dom

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - HERB KEINON

On Au­gust 1, 2000, I took over as The Jerusalem Post’s diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent, mean­ing I be­came re­spon­si­ble for the daily cov­er­age of the prime min­is­ter and the For­eign Min­istry. Skippy, my third child, was six years old. The Wife was still in her 30s. I had some hair, my beard was jet­black, Ehud Barak was prime min­is­ter, Bill Clin­ton was the US pres­i­dent, and Carl Schrag was ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Post.

The sum­mit be­tween Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David had just bro­ken down, and within a few weeks Arafat would ig­nite the Sec­ond In­tifada.

On De­cem­ber 15, 2019, I de­cided to step down as the Post’s

diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent, and would now write anal­y­sis and fea­tures.

Now Skippy has two chil­dren of his own. The Wife is no longer in her 30s. My hair is gone, my beard is white, Barak has delu­sions about be­com­ing Israel’s prime min­is­ter again, Clin­ton would love to see his wife be­come pres­i­dent, and the Post has had four ed­i­tors-in-chief since Schrag.

It’s a tough beat to cover, the diplo­matic beat, de­mand­ing and stress­ful. News here breaks at a dizzy­ing pace. At any point in time the prime min­is­ter is say­ing some­thing some­where, a Euro­pean coun­try or in­ter­na­tional body is mak­ing some kind of con­dem­na­tion of Israel, and some diplo­matic story needs telling.

But it’s also fas­ci­nat­ing and ex­cit­ing.

I’ve had the op­por­tu­nity to cover and travel with four dif­fer­ent prime min­is­ters, start­ing with Barak, through Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and – for the last decade – Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. I’ve trav­elled more with Ne­tanyahu than with The Wife.

There is an un­de­ni­able sense of ex­cite­ment when Sharon calls you in for an in­ter­view on the eve of the Gaza with­drawal to ex­plain his ra­tio­nale; it is eye-open­ing cov­er­ing Olmert’s first news con­fer­ence af­ter Sharon is felled by a stroke; and there is a true sense of his­tory sit­ting in the press gallery when Ne­tanyahu bucks pres­i­dent Barack Obama and ad­dresses a joint ses­sion of Congress against the Iran deal.

I’ve trav­elled to re­mote lo­cales – Ah­mad­abad, Mon­rovia, N’Dja­mena – that I would prob­a­bly not have vis­ited on my own, and vis­ited, with­out pay­ing an en­trance fee, some of the worlds grand­est palaces – the Krem­lin, the White House, and the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing.

And I’ve waited... a lot.

Be­yond the brief­ings and the news con­fer­ences and the feel­ing of be­ing present at his­tory-mak­ing events, the other thing I will re­mem­ber most about the job is just wait­ing around: wait­ing for sources and spokes­peo­ple to re­turn calls, wait­ing for the umpteeenth se­cu­rity check, wait­ing at air­ports for the prime min­is­ter to ar­rive, wait­ing in chan­de­liered halls for him to begin a news con­fer­ence.

Along with the ro­mance of be­ing present a his­tor­i­cal events comes the te­dium of hav­ing to wait to get into all those his­tor­i­cal events. Over the years I’ve de­vel­oped an ap­ti­tude for writ­ing news sto­ries fast, and also have got­ten re­ally good at wait­ing.

I BE­GAN this beat when the prime min­is­ter flew in a de­com­mis­sioned Israel Air Force plane that could not carry enough fuel to fly non-stop to Amer­ica. It needed to re­fuel in Shan­non, Ire­land, on the way to Wash­ing­ton, and in Rome on the way back to Israel. And I leave the beat as the prime min­is­ter is on the cusp, fi­nally, of get­ting his own ded­i­cated air­plane (which he needs).

I started the beat when it was the norm for the prime min­is­ter to give two ma­jor in­ter­views a year to The Jerusalem Post – on In­de­pen­dence Day and Rosh Hashanah – and leave as the prime min­is­ter has not granted this, or any other Is­raeli news­pa­per, even a sin­gle non-elec­tion year in­ter­view (which he needs to do) in four years.

Those two changes – the plane and the in­ter­views – say much about how Is­raeli so­ci­ety has changed in the in­ter­ven­ing two decades.

The plane shows that the coun­try has ma­tured to the point where it re­al­izes that, no, the prime min­is­ter shouldn’t have to fly like just one of the guys when he trav­els to meet the US pres­i­dent in the White House.

And the lack of in­ter­views shows how me­dia have changed, and how the prime min­is­ter no longer needs re­porters to re­lay his mes­sage. He can can just do it him­self – with­out any of those pesky ques­tions – on Face­book.

Nearly two decades of cov­er­ing Is­raeli prime min­is­ters is – along with my fair share of run-on sen­tences, dan­gling par­tici­ples, and mis­spelled words – a good chunk of time.

But put in per­spec­tive, it is also not re­ally that long. It never ceases to amaze me how one’s sense of time changes over the years.

When I came to Israel as a student in 1979, I re­mem­ber study­ing about the 1956 Si­nai Cam­paign – a war that took place 23 years ear­lier – in a class on Is­raeli his­tory.

It all felt then like such a long time ago, and I had trou­ble un­der­stand­ing the rel­e­vance of that event to the Israel I was liv­ing in. So, too, must the events of 2000 – events that I cov­ered closely – seem to my kids to­day. The start of the Sec­ond In­tifada was an eter­nity ago, no?

Ac­tu­ally, no. The events of 2000, when I took over the beat, con­tinue to have a huge im­pact on this coun­try. To un­der­stand Israel to­day, in fact, is to un­der­stand the de­gree to which the trau­mas of that pe­riod con­tinue to res­onate and im­pact the coun­try, even to this day.

And that is what I have the op­por­tu­nity to do now – step back and strive to put events into some con­text, rather than just cover them in real time. The for­mer is a younger per­son’s game; the later one bet­ter suited for those at that stage of life where there is a sud­den in­ter­est in putting time in per­spec­tive, won­der­ing – all the while – how what once seemed like such a long time, now seems like hardly any time at all.

It never ceases to amaze me how one’s sense of time changes over the years

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