Israelis talk to Iranians on live BBC Persian TV special
is editor of BBC Persian's live interactive programme Your Turn
BBC News and BBC Persian journalists are currently banned from reporting from Iran; BBC Persian broadcasts are regularly jammed by the authorities in Tehran; and ordinary Iranians and Israelis rarely get the chance to debate on live television. So a special edition of BBC Persian’s live interactive programme Nowbat-e-Shoma (Your Turn), on the day of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent narrow election victory in Israel, was a ground-breaking experiment.
It’s frightening for the very reasons that prompted the sceptical expressions on some of my colleagues’ faces when we discussed the idea in a morning meeting of Your Turn, Persian TV’s interactive show. What sort of things would Iranians have to say about the Israeli election?
As my colleagues pointed out, we’ve learned from experience that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not a topic that generally prompts many Iranians to send us comments or pick up the phone. It seems that many Iranians are weary of the regular diet of anti-Israeli reporting on state television. They’re unlikely to have seen any detailed coverage of an Israeli election before, and in all probability they know very little about the political system or the election in Israel at all.
But it’s also an exciting prospect when you remember that, although the politicians from both sides usually talk to each other with the language of war and threats, ordinary Iranians and Israelis hardly ever have the chance to talk - especially on a live television show.
With this context in mind we decided to go ahead with the programme, but with some heavy moderation to make sure we didn’t expose either side to hostile reactions.
As we expected, at times the conversation got really heated over the possibility of an Israeli military attack on Iran. Two pro-establishment callers from Iran, both supporters of President Ahmadinejad, put their points across strongly:
"Israel can't attack Iran," said Majid from Isfahan, "they don't have the military capacity."
"Israel can't do anything against Iran," said Abolfazl from Teheran. "They couldn't even manage to deal with the missiles Iran supplied to Hamas in the recent Gaza conflict."
Rani on webcam from Jerusalem responded to Abolfazl: "Israel is definitely able to attack Iran but it's not about to do so because this may put the Middle East security at risk," he said. "Israel could have bombed the whole of the Gaza Strip but it didn't because Israel doesn't want to kill civilians."
But, surprisingly for our audiences, most of the Israeli contributors made it clear that in this election they are more concerned about the economy than candidates’ plans for Iran. Farhad from Tel Aviv put it in a nutshell when he said: "This election is definitely about our economic concerns."
Amir from Israel confirmed the view: "Iran is not the issue. We hear about Iran in every news bulletin on TV. What people in Israel will vote for is the economy."
Tamir Gandin completed the picture. “Israelis have been taking to the streets to protest against the rising cost of housing,” she explained. “Prices are going up but people's incomes have stayed the same. Young people can’t afford housing in Israel.”
It was only towards the end of the show that these insights about everyday life in Israel and the similarity of the two societies persuaded Ali to call us from London. "Israel is just like a part of Iran's body and vice versa,” he said. “Everything is just like a game! It looks like they are opposing each other, but in fact Iranians and Israelis are not enemies."
Babak from Jerusalem responded movingly: "Israel is like my father and Iran is my mother -I don't want them to fight.”
Despite our expectations, the discussion actually went pretty smoothly and everybody really got engaged. Our presenter, Ehsan Amertousi, didn't have a difficult time mediating between the two sides. He didn't even have to repeat the gentle reminders about BBC editorial house rules that we sometimes have to announce on air to prevent our contributors from being rude towards each other.
So were we wrong to have reservations about doing the show?
Well, it’s certainly the case that our phone operation team weren’t overwhelmed with calls on the day of the programme, as we had expected. And BBC Persian has definitely received lots of messages asking why we spent so much time covering the Israeli elections.
But despite that the response we got on social media after the show was quite rewarding. The number of people clicking on this edition of Your Turn on the BBC Persian Facebook page and YouTube channel is still increasing steadily.