Why ordinary Arabs faithfully tune in to voice of the 'enemy'

Amid the din of downtown Damascus the jauntily delivered Arabic announcement on the radio doesn't fully register at first: ''This is the Voice of Israel, from Yerusalim-Al Quds.'' (The first part of the name is an Arabization of the Hebrew for ''Jerusalem''; the second part, the Arabs' own name for the disputed holy city.)

Yet more with each passing year, quite ordinary people in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon are tuning in faithfully to the broadcast voice of the ''Zionist enemy'' - the Arabic-language service of the Voice of Israel (VOI).

Often the jumbled jigsaw that is Arab-Israeli politics provides an explanation:

Like the time back in 1977, when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was jetting to Jerusalem and the Libyan Embassy in Beirut was intent on punishing his ''treachery.'' The Libyan diplomats' idea was to burn what was then Libya and Egypt's joint flag - a leftover from their short-lived United Arab Republic.

With this and other reporters looking on, the Libyan diplomats realized - as President Sadat's scheduled landing time drew near - that they had not the faintest way of knowing whether the ''traitor'' had indeed touched down, or when he would. The solution: switch on the VOI's Arabic service. They did. And the flag-burning went ahead nicely.

Or, five years later, when Israel rolled tanks and troops into Lebanon.... Panicked civilians countrywide switched on to find out precisely whose tanks were moving where, and how to get out of the way.

''Right after the invasion, we were the main element in the Lebanese equation ,'' recalls VOI Arabic-service chief Edmond Zahayek, himself shot in the arm while taking an on-scene trip early in the war. ''The Lebanese had to listen to us. Their lives might even be at stake.''

But mostly - as taxi drivers in Damascus or Amman or Cairo or Beirut confirm - the VOI's Arab audience turns to the Israelis for good old-fashioned news, or for other people-to-people services their own state-controlled propaganda radios just don't provide.

Mr. Zehayek runs an odd little island of ''coexistence'' in a sea of Arab-Israeli enmity.

It is not a matter of Arabs becoming ''pro-Israeli'' in even the tamest sense. Nearly four decades of intermittent war have left a legacy of mutual Arab-Israeli mistrust. But in small ways, Zehayek's 18-hour-a-day broadcasts have won an immunity of sorts from that ill will.

''The most important issue of all,'' Zehayek says, ''is to keep our credibility as news broadcasters.''

On one level, that is not too hard. The VOI - whether in Hebrew, Arabic, English, or the host of other languages in which it broadcasts abroad - is, unlike the Voice of America, not a directly linked organ of the state. It is a publicly funded, but in many ways autonomous, setup more like the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Still, the Arabic service is a special animal within VOI. There is no direct guidance, as a rule, on what to say. And there is none at all regarding the outlet's hourly news broadcasts. The main exception is in times of all-out war, as during the Lebanon invasion, when the Arabic service may become a vehicle for Israeli military announcements to enemy combatants or the population in the war zone. It is the strapping Zehayek who bears almost full responsibility for what kind of broadcasts go out, even during events such as the Lebanon war.

''We did broadcast official announcements to the PLO, Syrian soldiers, and the Lebanese people according to advances in the field. Or sometimes, appeals to surrender or that sort of thing. But for me, our long-term credibility is the main issue. We were very careful, therefore, to identify such announcements as coming in the Israeli Army's name, not ours.''

Similarly, Zehayek is careful to explicitly identify as Israeli opinion the twice-daily political commentaries broadcast by the Arabic service in peacetime.

But news, he insists, is news. Though he has Israel's strongest radio broadcast operation at his disposal, he notes that, with 52 other Arabic radio stations competing with him for listeners, he has got to provide a valuably different product to get people to tune in.

''Our listeners in the Arab world know their media are not objective,'' Zehayek says. ''But although we're 'the enemy' for them, we try hard to tell the truth - most importantly, about developments within the Arab world.

''Our strengths are that the listeners really do seem to think we try to give them an objective picture. And, by Arab-world standards, we also serve up the news on major developments a lot more quickly.''

But Zehayek freely admits there are times when he has to figure out how best to censor himself.

His station also serves hundreds of thousands of Arabs inside Israel and on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Since news is far more widely and objectively available there than almost anywhere in the Arab world, to maintain credibility ''at home'' means airing pretty frankly even items that could reflect badly on Israel, such as a labor strike here.

In some instances he doesn't particularly want to spotlight these for his listeners in places like Syria or Iraq. (Zehayek, a Jew originally from Iraq, recalls listening to VOI's Arabic service every night before he immigrated here 20 years ago.)

''Anyway, what I do usually in instances of such 'negative' reports is to go ahead and broadcast them - only not, for instance, leading the news show with them as our domestic, Hebrew service would do.''

And though there is no reliable way of surveying precisely how many people listen in the Arab world, Zehayek knows from a variety of signals that ''we do have a real audience out there.''

For one thing, there are the letters.

Since Sadat's peace, Zehayek has been getting an average of 100 or so letters a day from Egypt. Since taking out a Swiss postal box, he also gets a dozen or so daily from many other countries. Sometimes listeners are downright incensed. Recently, for instance, Zehayek got a call from a Libyan diplomat in Egypt. ''He said, '(expletive deleted).' He said we had attacked (Libyan leader Muammar) Qaddafi, and that this wasn't good.... ''

Sometimes, since the Lebanon war began, the potential ''audience'' has been closer to home. On several occasions Zehayek's station broadcast personal greetings into Syria from some of the nearly 300 Syrian POWs who were captive in Israel until June.

Once he aired a decidedly political ''discussion show'' with the captives.

''They attacked Israel. They said, if Assad wants, they're ready to spend even 20 years in prison here'' for the Syrian cause. ''They insisted there be two separate audio cassettes of the show, one for broadcast and one for them as a record of what they said.... It's their passport for safe passage back to Syria. Of course, I complied.''

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