War is a good story, Israeli journalist says in S.F.

Ron Ben-Yishai has been wounded in action twice — not as a soldier but as a journalist.

Both injuries occurred during the 18-month War of Attrition, which began in 1969 when Egyptian forces opened fire on Israeli soldiers stationed at the Suez Canal.

On one occasion, Ben-Yishai and Israeli troops landed in a helicopter near a Palestine Liberation Organization base in Jordan. Ben-Yishai was among those hit when fighters on the base opened fire.

Another time, Ben-Yishai took shrapnel in the arm as he ran along the rim of a trench in Syria with a television camera filming soldiers scrambling inside.

Currently a special-assignment correspondent for Yediot Achronot, Israel's largest-circulation Hebrew daily, Ben-Yishai long ago came to terms with the occupational hazards of covering war.

"I'm afraid all the time," admits the 55-year-old journalist, who came to San Francisco recently as part of the Anti-Defamation League's Middle East lecture series. "Being afraid is an instrument of staying alive. It is an instrument that allows me to come back and tell the story."

In addition to the War of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Ben-Yishai has covered, on location, conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War and battles in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

"I see myself as a storyteller mainly," the award-winning journalist said in an interview. "War is a good story."

Nowhere as in war, he contends, are human emotions and behavior laid so bare.

"War is an extreme situation in which human beings bring their human qualities to an extreme. That makes it so interesting," said Ben-Yishai, who is also a former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine.

As an Israel Defense Force veteran of both the War of Attrition and the 1967 Six-Day War, Ben-Yishai brings a rare, first-hand understanding to his battle coverage.

"One of the main difficulties of a battlefield is to recognize a situation and understand it: who is against whom, where and what is in danger," he said. "I get a picture quicker than other journalists who cover war."

But Ben-Yishai, a frequent media commentator on national and international security issues, has also covered peace.

Just in time to cover the historic Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, Ben-Yishai was named Washington correspondent for Yediot Achronot, eventually becoming the paper's Washington bureau chief.

Covering the Camp David process, from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977 to the agreement's signing a year later, was a high point in his career.

He won the Israeli Newspaper Publishers' "Outstanding Journalist of the Year" award in 1989.

These days, Ben-Yishai often covers the Arab-Israeli peace process, but from the perspective of related violence.

"Sometimes I pity the people involved in violence," he said. "History will move on, but they will stay dead and crippled forever."

While visiting the United States, he has found people wanting easy answers to the mired quest for peace.

"I think it is important for people to understand the complexity of the situation," Ben-Yishai said. "You find yourself unable to give simple answers or to make predictions that will be sound or hold water two weeks from now."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.