KGO host in Jerusalem: Every Israeli has an opinion

The food was great. Benjamin Netanyahu canceled. Fewer people smoked than imagined. Everyone carried cellular phones. And Har Homa "was surprising."

Before his visit to Jerusalem last week, KGO Newstalk AM 810 radio host Ronn Owens expected the new Jewish neighborhood beyond the 1967 border to be more like a small city.

"You get the impression this is so well developed. It's not. Foundation is being laid. Dirt is being carved out. It seems more symbolic than anything," Owens said.

For three days last week, Owens broadcast live from Jerusalem's LaRomme Hotel. Among his guests were Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator and minister for local government for the Palestinian Authority; David Bar-Illan, senior policy adviser to Netanyahu; and Dennis Ross, Middle East peace envoy.

Owens also refereed debates between Knesset members, as well as two Orthodox rabbis arguing whether or not to "shut down" the country on Shabbat.

Netanyahu canceled without explanation.

Still, broadcasting live from the Promised Land "was a thrill. I went with no real expectations," Owens said. "Whatever I had, it exceeded them. Whenever I travel I try to go with a blank slate."

Owens admitted it was harder to avoid bias on this trip — his first ever to Israel.

"I make no bones about my personal feelings. I'm a Jew. I defend Israel's right to exist. People know that," he said. "But I also wanted to present all sides. My goal is always to do a good program."

Owens, who often broadcasts from Washington, D.C., was planning a remote from New York. Three weeks before he was scheduled to leave, Mickey Luckoff, KGO president and general manager, said, "Nothing is going on in New York. Let's go to the Middle East."

A self-defined political junkie who broadcast live from Madrid during the 1991 peace talks, Owens jumped at the opportunity.

"The Bay Area isn't foreign relations-heavy. People care about what affects them here and now. But I was able to give people a better understanding of what's going on. They got immersed in a three-day pleasure course," he said.

Upon his arrival in Israel, Owens quickly noted that Mideast politics presented dichotomies and subplots beyond simple stories.

For example, looking out at Har Homa, he noticed it was surrounded by Arabs.

"On one side is a Palestinian settlement; on the other is [Palestinian] Bethlehem," Owens said, stopping short of criticizing the Israeli government's decision to build there.

Similarly problematic for Owens are the death threats to Palestinians — from the Palestinian Authority — if they sell their land to Israelis.

"People say [murder] won't happen. But it is happening," he said referring to the killing of a Palestinian realtor who sold land to Jews. "There's lots of contradictory statements from Yasser Arafat. I understand people being both scared and disheartened."

Though Owens observed that Mideast politics are complex, he saw similarities to the American system. "It seems like the intellectuals are on the Labor side and the average person is Likud. There did seem to be a certain parallel between Democract and Republican," he said.

However, "Six days in Israel does not an expert make," he added. "And I talked to enough people on both sides of the spectrum to know that every single Israeli has an opinion — at least one. They have to. This is their life."

Following the interviews, Owens took a one-day tour of Israel that included viewing the Golan Heights, driving through Tiberias, "which is a lot like Santa Cruz," and "dipping my toes in the Sea of Galilee."

In addition, Owens met an Israeli cousin he didn't know even existed until just days before his trip.

His only regret is the way his trip was hyped in the secular media. In the S.F. Examiner and Chronicle, KGO ran ads reading: "Ronn Owens Live (barring car bomb, assassination or scud missile attack)."

"I didn't see the ad until the day before I left. I couldn't have changed it if I wanted to. But I thought it was in very bad taste and potentially jinxing to me," Owens said. "I have a problem with any ad I can't show my little girls."

Still, "Not a lot of stations would put out the money to do this broadcasting and promotion," he said. "I appreciate it. But I hated the ad."