A matter of involvement, not opportunity

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Perhaps because both sides are dependent on international support and external factors, Palestinians and Israelis have always considered the media and international public opinion crucial to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel has long depended heavily on all kinds of support from outside, including economic, military, political and diplomatic support. And since Israel is very familiar with Western politics, it knows that maintaining an attractive view of Israel among Europeans and Americans helps to maintain all kinds of international support for Israel.

On the other hand, Palestinians–as the weaker party in this struggle–feel that they must actively recruit international support. Due to this imbalance of power, Palestinians have constructed their entire recent political strategy upon giving up their basic political rights and sticking to rights that are accepted by international law and international legality, in particular Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 that are acceptable to everyone, including the United States and Israel.

It is true, however, that the Palestinian leadership is less sensitive to the media’s importance in stimulating international support. When it does understand the significance of public relations, the leadership simply does not know how to go about things or does not put matters in the hands of people who know how to massage public opinion through the press.

There are also structural features in the Palestinian leadership that make Palestinians less “credible” or perhaps less attractive to champions of their cause. Simply, their political system is not democratic by Western standards. Often outside observers forget that one of the reasons for this is the persistent Israeli occupation. The first thing that Palestinians undertook after ending Israeli control over Palestinian populated areas through the implementation of the Oslo agreements was to conduct internationally-monitored elections.

A prominent example of the difference in the two sides’ approach to media relations was their handling of the Camp David 2000 talks. While Israel grabbed the moment to give their version of why Camp David failed (i.e., “it was the Palestinians’ fault”), Palestinians just said nothing–first, because they didn’t know how crucial it was to speak out at that moment, and second, because Palestinian President Yasser Arafat instead commenced a tour in which he visited more than 25 countries and their leaders in 20 days.

Public relations has also played a significant role during this Intifada. The Palestinians, despite incurring most of the casualties and suffering (particularly in the first few months of the Intifada), lost the PR battle from the start. Ironically, Israel–despite its initiation of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontations and despite its use of brute force and despite the heavy casualties it inflicted on Palestinians (an average of ten Palestinian dead a day)–incredibly managed to portray itself as the victim in this struggle.

Over the last few weeks, however, we may have entered a new phase. Yasser Arafat, who has been besieged in Ramallah and put under extreme international pressure, has suddenly become extremely active in dealing with the media and public relations. Interviews with the press and press-covered meetings with the general public are now part of his daily routine. He even published an article in the New York Times.

In these appearances, Arafat’s tone has changed, on the one hand showing increasing toughness in refusing to give in to Israeli threats and pressure, and on the other hand using very moderate political language, particularly in giving a new and significant concession in the official Palestinian position on refugees.

Coincidentally or not, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has also increased his media appearances, departing from what seems to have been good advice given him after taking office–in essence to “shut up.” That silence may have been one reason for his political survival to date. Since he has changed his strategy and become generous to the media, his public position has simultaneously deteriorated–both in Israel and internationally.

These recent developments emphasize once again the extreme importance of international public opinion to the two sides. It also demonstrates how much leverage the outside world, especially the US and Europe, really has over Palestinians and Israelis.

Europe and the United States and the international community in general can be a major contributor to the cause of peace in the Middle East. They have not yet done so only because the United States, following a post-Camp David strategy of leaving the weaker party to the mercy of the stronger in order to ensure progress by force, is avoiding involvement itself and trying to prevent others from interfering. The recent media blitz demonstrates that if the Americans stop holding the process hostage, we might see results.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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