Israelis, Palestinians Talk--Sort of--on ‘Nightline’ : Program in Jerusalem Called Unique Because of Its ‘Town Hall’ Approach

Times Staff Writer

Newscaster Ted Koppel was relieved because the whole affair passed without physical violence.

Palestinian political scientist Saeb Erakat was frustrated because he thought he had been reduced to jousting with windmills.

And Ehud Olmert, a rightist member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), was delighted at what he saw as a public relations victory.

That’s how three key participants summed up their feelings after what “Nightline” producers described as an unprecedented “town hall” meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. The ABC news show was broadcast live from Jerusalem into American homes Tuesday night (early Wednesday here).


“If we had truly understood what we were trying to do here today, we would never have done it,” Koppel told a lopsided, mostly invited studio audience estimated at nearly 700 Jews and more than 100 Arabs.

All had risen well before dawn to travel to the Jerusalem Theater, pass through tight security checks and take their seats facing a backdrop designed to make the stage look as if it were just outside the walls of the capital’s historic Old City.

The “Nightline” crew had hoped to have at least 250 Palestinians in the audience and fewer Jews in order to more accurately mirror the population mix in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

However, as a Palestinian journalist noted, “People were not happy with the idea, particularly after Abu Jihad was killed. That turned off a lot of people who were interested in coming.”


The journalist referred to the April 16 assassination of Khalil Wazir, the top military commander for Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, who was more commonly known by the nom de guerre Abu Jihad, or “Father of Holy War.” While the Israeli government refuses to comment on responsibility for the killing, sources here have confirmed that it was ordered by senior government ministers and carried out by a combined army, air force, navy, and Mossad intelligence agency force.

Koppel said ABC also had trouble assembling a panel of Palestinian representatives to balance four Israeli Knesset members invited to participate. The man responsible for recruiting the Arab panelists “was close to despair by last night,” the newscaster said, and it was not until moments before air time that it was known which of several possible candidates on at least four different lists would actually appear.

As it was, there were only three Palestinians on stage instead of the planned four. And they insisted that a symbolic wooden divider be placed on the stage between them and the Israelis.

“They felt there was a need to show symbolically that they were not here, A) to negotiate, or, B) to enter into a direct dialogue with the Israelis,” Koppel explained. Any exchange was to be through the host.

Most Palestinians maintain that the PLO is their sole legitimate representative for any negotiations with Israel.

During most of the program, the three Palestinians refused even to look directly at the Knesset members, although during two or three particularly heated moments the two sides shouted across the stage at each other.

Given the passion of the conflict, ABC’s big worry was a fight in the audience or some other major disturbance.

“There was always the fear that these deep emotional feelings were going to erupt into violence,” Koppel said minutes after the 3-hour-and-10-minute broadcast finally ended shortly before 10 a.m. local time.


“We were warned of smoke bombs, or stink bombs, or something even worse,” Koppel said. “So in that respect alone it was a tremendous success.”

But it was precisely the “town hall” approach that made the program unique, noted executive producer Richard Kaplan. Everything else in the weeklong special “Nightline” broadcasts from Jerusalem running through this Friday “could have been done in New York,” Kaplan said.

Koppel sidestepped questions about the practical merit of the show.

“I’ve got so many things going on in my ear while all that is going on . . . that I am probably the last person in the world to judge if anything substantive was achieved,” he said. However, he added, “as a symbolic act I think it worked.”

For the participants, the point was not to break new ground in Arab-Israeli understanding, but to convince Americans of the ultimate justice of their respective stands. No argument was used that had not been heard many times before by most of the capacity audience here. And both sides appeared to applaud much more when one of “their” representatives on stage was seen to score a debating point against the opposition than on the few occasions when anyone extended a verbal hand of peace.

Still, virtually all of the frequent audience interruptions occurred during air time. During the commercial breaks, people seemed more interested in stretching or assessing the performance of the respective panelists with friends than in baiting the other side.

At one point, when the Israeli Knesset members started arguing with each other, one Israeli in the audience turned to his seatmate and mumbled: “That’s why we’ve got a problem.”

“My objective is not to try to duplicate the Knesset in miniature,” Koppel quipped as he interrupted the argument.


Kaplan said one of his goals in producing the show was to be as flexible as possible. In this format, he explained, “you don’t produce the program for the audience. You let the audience produce the program for you.”

ABC correspondents had prepared 14 short pieces to focus on various aspects of the conflict and its fallout. Only six were aired. Among those not used were a piece on the Israeli lobby in Washington, Israelis and Arab-Americans in Detroit, and a look at the volatile issue of water rights in the occupied territories.

Kaplan also had 70 “sound bites” prepared, including brief statements about the Middle East problem by most of the U.S. presidential contenders. Only a handful were aired.

Some of the material will be used in subsequent broadcasts in the “This Week in the Holy Land” series, the producer said. Within minutes after the town hall segment went off the air, Kaplan and other “Nightline” principals huddled to prepare Wednesday night’s look at the historical context of the conflict and the installments for the rest of the week.

“A lot of things are up in the air,” Kaplan noted, including interviews with Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister, and a look at the youth of both sides who are confronting each other in the streets.

“Nightline” had hoped to air an interview with Jordan’s King Hussein during the week, but Koppel said that now appears unlikely. The assassination of Abu Jihad and this week’s apparent reconciliation between Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad have “changed the (political) equation” and are believed to have dissuaded the king from making what would appear a conciliatory gesture.

Near the end of the fifth month of a Palestinian uprising that has seen about 165 Arabs and two Israelis killed, the mood Wednesday in the Jerusalem Theater, like that in much of the country, was not conciliatory.

The minute the cameras were turned off, Israeli panelist Dedi Zucker, a leader of the leftist Citizens’ Rights Movement, bounded out of his chair, around the makeshift divider, and over to the Palestinian side to bid farewell to the Arab panelists. By the time he got there, however, the admittedly frustrated Erakat had already walked briskly off the stage. Palestinian panelists Hanan Ashrawi, the dean of arts at Birzeit University, and Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (equivalent of the Red Cross), shook hands coolly with Zucker. But Abdel-Shafi ignored, and Ashrawi refused to shake hands with, Knesset member Haim Ramon, a member of the more centrist Labor Alignment who followed Zucker across the stage.

Panelists Olmert and Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, members of the rightist Likud Bloc, made no movement toward the Palestinian side. And Olmert, asked how he thought the whole show had gone, replied with a smile: “I think that justice was shown today, which means I think the Israeli side made its points very clear.”