Covering prime ministers: The romance and the boredom
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