Abbas must strengthen his media strategy

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has taken significant steps to distinguish himself from his predecessor, the late President Yasser Arafat who was reviled by Israel’s rightwing government and by President Bush as an obstacle to peace.

Just over 100 days in office, Abbas has responded mainly to the concerns of the Bush administration, gaining some praise and empowering the United States to take tougher stands against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government on issues of land confiscation and settlements.

But the steps Abbas has taken are not enough and lack the one thing that more than anything undermined the movement for peace that began in 1998 when Arafat initiated contact with Israel and declared the Palestinian willingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist within the pre-1967 borders.

Arafat lacked a strategic public relations campaign that exposed him to the whims of the Israelis whose public relations efforts are notorious for their ability to oftentimes spin public opinion against facts.

When the peace process collapsed, the Israeli PR machine went into full gear, convincing the public that the peace process collapsed because of Arafat’s inability to make peace rather than Israel’s unwillingness to dismantle settlements or return occupied lands captured in 1967.

Without a clear media strategy, Abbas will find himself susceptible to the same Israeli whims despite reforming the Palestinian government, replacing intransigent cabinet foes of peace with Israel and reigning in Hamas.

Yet an effective media strategy can produce more results in winning support among Americans than all of the likely concessions Abbas will make to Israel.

Israel has and continues to employ an army of media strategists and public relations firms, investing millions to in a highly effective campaign that has one clear objective: reinforce American public perception that the Palestinians, not Israelis, are the obstacles to peace, are engaged in violence and seek unrealistic demands that Israel cannot make.

Yet with a modest investment and a clearly defined public relations strategy, Abbas could not only reverse much of the American public’s attitudes toward the Palestinians but even cast Israel as the aggressor.

The fact that President Bush has praised Abbas publicly gives him the ability to bring his message personally to the American people, who continue to view Palestinians as news stories and statistics rather than as a people.

Abbas could implement an immediate plan to visit major cities in the American heartland and avoiding the cities where Israel’s media machinery remains concentrated.

Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Orlando and Boston where large Arab and Palestinian audiences can offer friendly forums.

The tours would have to also be coordinated outside of the controls of Arab American organizations based in Washington D.C. that lack national grassroot constituencies and have a tendency to promote themselves, or their leadership personalities, over and above the broader needs of the Palestinian agenda.

An American tour coordinated with local rather than national Arab American organizations could also result in the placement of friendlier news coverage in regional newspapers based in those cities.

Abbas would easily attract coverage from the international news media and the international desks of the American media. But what he really needs is to sidestep the international beat reporters and editors and instead connect with regional editors not entrenched in pro-Israel political narratives.

Media specialists would help Abbas craft his messages so they address issues pertinent to American audience concerns. It is a tactical procedure employed by Israel.

Once you understand the nuances of American attitudes, you can undermine inaccurate stereotypes and promote a message that will be accepted.

Abbas also has the benefit of the “political honeymoon.” In office under 120 days, the American public will be more receptive to Abbas and listen to his messages. It’s the American way.

His visit could be followed up by the implementation of satellite representative advocates –” rather than formal PNA offices –” in each of the cities his visits to help reinforce his messages when he returns to Palestine and the negotiating table.

When peace process again collapses when Israel refuses to dismantle the settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, or dismantle the Apartheid Wall, Abbas will be in a stronger position to respond to the expected Israeli media spin.