Over the past year, the Arabic-language news site Elaph has published an unprecedented series of interviews with senior Israeli officials. The interviewees included the Israeli army’s chief of staff, the previous defense minister, the intelligence minister and the leader of the opposition.
Stoking interest was Elaph’s connections to Saudi Arabia, with many asking whether the interviews are a sign of warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
The Times of Israel sat down recently with Majdi Halabi, a veteran Israeli reporter who conducted and then wrote up the interviews in a simple question and answer format.
Halabi, 54, who grew up in the Galilean Druze village Daliyat al-Karmel, said the interviews were his idea, and that Elaph’s publisher, Othman Al Omeir, “loved” the initiative.
This was no secret understanding between Riyadh and Jerusalem, said Halabi, but merely a successful story pitch in Elaph’s offices in London.
The idea was simple, Halabi said. “We are a paper that is published in London. We are not subject to the laws of Arab countries, where, except for Egypt and Jordan [which have peace treaties with Israel], it is illegal for journalists to interview official Israeli sources.”
Halabi said that readers of Arabic-language news have always read statements from Israeli leaders through second-hand sources that raise doubts about the authenticity or accuracy of the quotes.
“We decided to do it directly,” he said.
According to numerous media reports, Omeir, who is a Saudi citizen and was once the editor-in-chief of the premier Saudi news outlet, As-Sharq al-Awsat, is very close to Saudi King Salman.
Omeir founded Elaph as the first Arabic-language news site in 2001.
Halabi would not discuss Omeir’s connection to the Saudi king. He contended, rather, that Elaph was purely independent and financed completely by Omeir himself.
Omeir declined an invitation to be interviewed by The Times of Israel.
“I got permission from my publisher [for the interviews]. That’s what I know, and that’s what I did, without any edits to my work 99.9 percent of the time,” said Halabi.
After Halabi’s interview with Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, the Israeli press reported that an offer by Katz to host Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in Israel was edited out of the final draft, highlighting the gulf that remains between the countries.
Halabi did not deny that the invitation was deleted from his article, but he maintained that the Israeli media was overemphasizing a minor detail.
“The Israeli press loves to celebrate things that are not exactly interesting,” he said. “[Katz] invited him and told the Israeli media about it. But we didn’t consider it interesting, so we got rid of it. It’s very simple. It wasn’t from any sense of malice or ill will.”
Asked why he would cut a single sentence from a long interview transcript, Halabi said that “it wasn’t my call” and “was part of the editing process.”
Despite Omeir’s reported friendship with the Saudi king, Elaph is blocked in Saudi Arabia. According to Halabi, this is due to the site’s liberal tone. This has been the case since the reign of the previous Saudi king, Abdullah.
However, Halabi pointed out, the block on Elaph is somewhat farcical because Omeir simply opened a new website called Elaph Journal, which has exactly the same material as the regular website but is not blocked in Saudi Arabia.
Over 25% of Elaph Journal’s readership is from Saudi Arabia, according to the website Similiar Web, which provides data on websites.
‘I’m a reporter, not an intermediary’
Halabi’s VIP interviewees used the opportunity to send positive messages to the Saudis. In one astonishing example, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said Israel was prepared to share intelligence with the Saudis in their shared goal of stemming Iran’s influence in the region. Israel’s opposition leader took the opportunity to call Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman a “revolutionary” and said the Saudis should have a role in administering the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Halabi, however, rejected the idea that he is somehow an intermediary between Riyadh and Jerusalem.
“I’m a reporter. I’m not a go-between. I don’t know how to mediate. I know how to report on what happens here, to interview Israelis and to publish the interview. If there are reactions, that’s already another story,” he said.
Halabi said that he did not act outside the bounds of standard journalistic procedure to acquire his VIP subjects.
“I put in requests like every journalist. I don’t have any special privilege,” he said.
In order to interview the IDF chief of staff, he said, he put in a request with Eisenkot’s office in Tel Aviv, and never dealt with the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The chief of staff was pleased to be interviewed by an Arab newspaper,” he said, adding that the interview was conducted in a “positive and comfortable atmosphere.”
“From our point of view, it was a great achievement,” he said, adding that Eisenkot’s interview with Elaph raised eyebrows across the world and brought interest in Elaph to a new level.
Halabi worked for nine years as a correspondent for Israel’s public broadcaster covering Palestinian and Arab affairs. He also worked for five years as the Israel correspondent for the Lebanese media channel MTV, despite the fact that this broke both laws and social norms for a citizen of Israel (Halabi is also a veteran of the IDF). He said MTV “stood by” him in the face of numerous threats, and never edited his TV reports.
Arab news stations usually hire correspondents from East Jerusalem or the West Bank to cover Israel.
Portraying Israel ‘as it is’
Halabi said his goal was to give the Arab world a fair picture of Israel’s diverse political landscape, rather than the myopic depictions often found in the Arabic press.
“I’m trying to portray Israel as it is, without any cosmetics and without portraying it as a monster. This includes showing the left, the right and the army,” he said.
Halabi said he plans to push forward with interviewing more senior Israeli officials from all sides of the political spectrum and security establishment. A few of these interviews have already been done or are scheduled to take place soon, he said.
“Israel is not monolithic; it’s not one man. Today, [Benjamin Netanyahu] is the prime minister. Tomorrow it could be [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett. And in two days, [opposition leader Isaac] Herzog. Israel isn’t one man. It’s a country,” he said. “We’re trying to show the Arab world what’s here.”