HBO Chairman, WME TV Exec Talk Israeli Elections

Jerusalem Landscape - H 2011

Jerusalem Landscape - H 2011

Israel goes to the polls for national elections March 17.

On the eve of what looks likely to be a historic election in Israel, a trio of the country's most acclaimed political reporters sat down with a couple of U.S. entertainment heavyweights about if, and how, politics makes good TV.

Ari Shavit, journalist and author of My Promised Land, the acclaimed best-seller on the history of Israel, and Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff spoke with HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler and WME head of television Rick Rosen at the INtv conference in Jerusalem on March 16, at a panel moderated by Israeli investigative journalist Ilana Dayan.

The elephant in the room was Israel's March 17 parliamentary elections and whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returned to power or be replaced by challenger Isaac Herzog.

Shavit, who is currently in production on the HBO documentary based on his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, said there was currently a political battle for “the soul of Israel” and that the election's outcome would “show us in what (country) we are living.” Without expressing support for Netanyahu, Shavit admitted Israel was “obsessed” with the story of its prime minister, which he said “is not even Shakespearean, it's Homeric. His talents are huge and his flaws are huge.”

Plepler agreed that “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is known, is a political superstar. “I watched him speak at a group of Hollywood CEOs a couple of weeks ago and he had everybody in the room starstruck,” he said.

But while the drama and comedy of politics has been translated successfully to the small screen in series including Netflix's House of Cards and HBO's Newsroom and Veep, Rosen argued that politics can be “a dangerous canvas” for creatives.

West Wing was a seminal TV series and it did capture the imagination of the American television audience,” he said. “But it is difficult balance. It's not surprising that there hasn't been a political show since on American broadcast television.”

This isn't the case in Israel where the drama of the country's political life has repeatedly been adapted for TV, most famously with Hatufim, the Israeli series that Showtime adapted as Homeland. One of the latest is Fauda, which follows an Israeli secret service undercover unit hunting down a Hamas terrorist.

Issacharoff drew on his experience as a reporter in co-creating the series. He said one of his goals was to put a human face on the Palestinians, the group at the center of much of the most heated debate in Israeli politics.

“It was to remind (Israelis) that there are people behind the wall, behind the fence,” he said. “Since the last Intifada, the Israeli people have forgotten that there are people, a nation, behind the wall.”

The panel was cautiously optimistic about the ability of political television to improve the real-life political process. “When these shows are done at their best, they can be transformative,” said Rosen.