Yoel Marcus wrote about politics as a play whose actors were the prime minister, the other ministers, the American ambassador, the chief of staff – now lionizing his protagonists, now lampooning them
1. He was a man of habits, as precise as the wristwatch he wore. He’d come to the desk after a morning swim at the Hilton, with the blue jacket, the white dress shirt, the silver hair parted on the side, the captivating charm and flowing memories. He’d type into the computer, print out the article in three copies and correct by pen on paper. Calls a source to clarify one more point, sharpen the headline. At lunch they’d bring him a slice of lemon cake, and beer hidden in a coffee mug. And another round of corrections with the Op-Ed editor, until the final text was uploaded.
2. When I first struck out in journalism in the late 1980s, Yoel Marcus was the cream of Haaretz’s crop, both in the paper’s hallways and to its readers. The term “talent” as a noun was not yet prevalent in Israel then, but everyone knew that Yoel was the best informed journalist, best connected to the “couloirs of power,” as he called them. He wrote about politics as a play whose actors were the prime minister, the other ministers, the American ambassador, the chief of staff – now lionizing his protagonists, now lampooning them. (“There’s a method to Rabin’s analyses: Everything comes out upside down” – quoting from memory.) Always noticing the subtleties of style and appearance, Netanyahu’s basso-profundo, Lieberman’s well-groomed beard, King Hussein’s expensive watch.
In years when the censor ruled military and diplomatic correspondents with a heavy hand, Marcus snuck first-rate stories into his columns. He revealed the Israeli war plan to conquer Lebanon all the way to Beirut in 1982, three weeks before the war broke out, in his most important article ever: “Blood poker.” With thinly veiled clues, he described the secret meeting between Yitzhak Shamir and King Hussein on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991, at which the two agreed to mutual neutrality. “He looked him in the eye,” Marcus wrote, and the readers understood he was describing a character of short stature like that of Shamir. He shocked the director of the Israel Aerospace Industries, Moshe Keret, by finding out about the mega-deal to sell Israeli fighter jets to South Africa – a deal signed in strict secrecy at the twilight of the apartheid regime.
3. As a young reporter in the fields that Marcus operated in, I viewed him as a mentor, and was elated when he agreed to a rare interview with the IDF weekly Bamahane, in which I served in the reserves. He explained his method to me: If on Tuesday you wrote against Rabin (or Peres, or Shamir, the country’s leaders of the time), write something nice about them on Friday; that way you keep them guessing. His critics within the paper argued then that he had no ideological convictions, changing his positions from one article to the next. But Marcus didn’t take such criticism to heart. He remained a reporter seeking a good story, and appreciated leaders willing to take a chance and create change, more than he did abstract principles. When Ariel Sharon was the most hated man among the left, after Sabra and Shatila and the Kahan Commission, Marcus foretold that this was the man who would evacuate settlements. Twenty years later, he received the exclusive from Sharon about the upcoming evacuation of the Gaza Strip. With Menachem Begin, Marcus had a complex relationship. But the peace Begin made with Egypt – as Marcus saw it, under Moshe Dayan’s persuasion and President Carter’s threats – dwarfed his shortcomings and fiascos, which have faded from memory over time.
4. Marcus enjoyed competing with his peers, within the paper and without, but at the end of the day his true commitment was to his readers, who felt he was sharing secrets with them from the most important rooms in Jerusalem and Washington. When I was appointed diplomatic correspondent I called to ask for his advice. Don’t worry, he told me, you’ll do fine. But know one thing: If until now you could wait with a story till you finish it, or go catch a movie, in international politics there’s no such thing. It’s a race and you have to come out with even a quarter of a story and then keep at it. He was right, of course, and in the coming years I would often recall his advice.
5. Yoel made his voice heard only in his newspaper columns, on Tuesdays and Fridays. No radio, no television, no lectures or symposiums, and had he continued to write, he would have probably stayed away from social media as well. His only refuge from writing about politics and statesmanship was “The Book of Wine” – a rare and pioneering gem of Hebrew culinary literature, with the knowledge he brought from Paris, long before the vast majority here could tell a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Merlot. Today I tried to imagine what he’d write on Friday. He’d probably describe the ice-cold Putin versus the confused Western leaders, with some behind-the-scenes revelation about Israel’s minimalist support for Ukraine. Maybe some secret phone call from Moscow that made Bennett’s skullcap twitch, or the impatient cable from Ambassador Herzog in Washington, which made Lapid break out in a cold sweat.