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Problems at Israel's Haaretz: Newspaper Without a Country

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Its lonely fight against the occupation of the West Bank made Israeli newspaper Haaretz internationally famous. At home, the paper is fighting for survival.

The irreverence of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz is visible from the first moment a visitor enters the paper's editorial headquarters.

There in the foyer hangs an open pig's carcass, looking just as it would in a slaughterhouse. This one, however, is reproduced in pieces of candy -- red ones for the muscles, and yellow for the innards. The building's doorman is on hand to help interpret this installation. The sculpture, he says, is like the land of Israel itself: "Beautiful on the outside, rotten on the inside."

"The land" is also the translation of the name Haaretz, and the newspaper's problems are indeed linked with those of the country. What the paper offers in abundance -- a willingness to compromise with the Palestinians -- has once again become a fairly unpopular stance in Israeli society.

One floor down from the foyer is the conference room. It's a windowless space and looks a bit like the nerve center of a war cabinet. This afternoon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is here to visit the newspaper. What follows is a vigorous exchange of views. On one side is the country's most critical editorial department; on the other, the politician who has shifted the traditionally left-wing Labor Party to the right, to the point where Barak's opinions sometimes seem to hardly differ from those of nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the center-right Likud Party.

Barak, a retired general, presents himself as a hardliner and quickly wears the journalists down. The louder he speaks, the more the editors lose any desire to ask him questions. The minister bellows. He pounds his right fist on the table. Even the croissant he casually stuffs into his mouth can't stop the flow of his words. In the end, the editor-in-chief observes with some bewilderment "that just now we didn't interrupt you for 20 minutes."

Struggle for Survival

And so the contemplative Left has again lost to the noisy mainstream. It's a symbol for the newspaper's struggle to survive in its ever-more-lonely position as a well-respected daily. Abroad, Haaretz is known for its strong position against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Its English-language Web site registers a million users each month. At home, however, only 66,000 Israelis buy the paper.

Founded in 1919, the paper was acquired in 1935 by Salman Schocken, a businessman who had fled Nazi Germany, where he had owned a department store chain and a publishing company. From 1939 on, Schocken's son Gustav shaped the paper's liberal, left-wing bent. Schocken's grandson Amos has been chief executive of the Haaretz group since 1990.

His father, says Amos Schocken, 64, was still able to take more interest in the editorial aspects than in the finances of the paper. But times have changed, the founder's grandson says: "The paper has to make money." And that's not easy. In 2006 the family sold 25 percent of its shares in the newspaper to Cologne-based publisher Alfred Neven DuMont. At the time of the sale, Schocken handed the new investor a sheet of paper outlining the newspaper's editorial principles. The German publisher read the list and then pointed to the last item: "'Haaretz supports efforts to achieve peace with Israel's Arab neighbors." That, DuMont said, is especially important.

The only problem is that actively advocating peace negotiations is a fairly unpopular position in Israel at the moment. Shortly after the end of the Six Day War in 1967, Haaretz was already promoting the return of the occupied territories in exchange for peace. With the 1994 Oslo Accords, majority Israeli opinion also began to swing in this direction. But the happy marriage between the newspaper and prevailing public opinion didn't last long. With the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 and the accompanying suicide attacks in Israeli cities, the land and "The Land" once again went their separate ways.

Subscribers began to abandon the paper in droves. The most common reason given by readers who canceled their subscriptions was one journalist, Gideon Levy, the country's most radical commentator. Once a week in his "Twilight Zone" column, Levy writes about the fate of Palestinians. He writes about taxi drivers whose vehicles were destroyed by Israeli soldiers or about a man whose wife was delayed at a checkpoint while having an acute heart attack for so long that she died. "If we change this newspaper's DNA," Levy warns, "we won't survive."

Editorial Changes

But the paper is already changing. Distinguished left-wing journalists have been pushed out, and new writers have joined Haaretz in their place. "The younger generation of journalists is less political," Levy says. Or they write pieces that are strikingly sympathetic to the Jewish settlers, as Levy's colleague Nadav Schragai did. For example, in his commentary on the eviction of a house occupied by settlers in Hebron, Schragai wrote: "Our government is developing its own fanaticism, in which the goal -- evicting Jews from Hebron -- justifies almost any means."

That's an unusual tone for Haaretz. Dov Alfon, 47, who became editor-in-chief this spring, offers this in his newspaper's defense: "We've always allowed a great diversity of opinion." Since Alfon took over, the paper has been experimenting a lot. Lately, stories about crimes have sometimes replaced politics as the lead headlines on the front page.

The editor-in-chief and the company's executives have identified the paper's format to be the largest obstacle to its commercial success. Up until now, Haaretz has been published in broadsheet format. This is the newspaper format with the largest dimensions and is shared, for example, by Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Meanwhile, Israel's largest daily newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv resemble British tabloids in size and design. Now there are plans to convert Haaretz to the tabloid format as well.

There are no plans, however, to change the paper's basic political line, says Alfon. The majority of Israelis, he says, support a two-state solution and the return of almost the entire West Bank.

And unlike in Europe or the United States, he points out, politics still sells in Israel. Nowhere else do people spend so many hours watching TV news programs as they do in Israel. "Politics," Alfon says, "is the Israeli version of pornography."

Article...

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
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