Thursday, April 21, 2005

“constructive ambiguity”

Israel's Ariel Sharon has had an amiable meeting with George Bush. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, badly needs the same thing

From The Economist print edition

“DIPLOMATS call it “constructive ambiguity”: wording an agreement—or a disagreement—so as to disguise the fact that there wasn't one. This week George Bush and Ariel Sharon showed their mastery of the technique. At a chummy confab at his Texas ranch, Mr Bush appeared to rebuke Israel's prime minister for not stopping settlement-building in the West Bank. Much has been made of the fact that Mr Sharon appeared to ignore him. But in reality there was little to ignore.

The meeting was important for Mr Sharon. Both he and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian president, were due this month to visit Mr Bush and seek his blessing for their efforts since their own summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in February. Mr Sharon went to Texas with a black mark in his book: the “E-1 Plan”, which his government revived last month, and which calls for the building of 3,500 new houses between East Jerusalem and Maale Adumim (one of the largest settlements, a few minutes' drive to the east of the capital), to consolidate Israel's hold on that block of West Bank settlements. Notwithstanding Israel's reassurances that the plan is still on paper, several others, in other settlements, are already far more advanced.

But Mr Sharon also had something to show since Sharm: success in steering his Gaza withdrawal plan through Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and keeping his governing coalition alive, despite stiff opposition both in his party and outside it. Now, belatedly but energetically, the government is forging ahead with the preparations for the withdrawal, approving compensation payments to the settlers and looking for new lands for them to move to. That is starting to distil the reluctantly acquiescent majority of them from the hardcore opponents, who have staged noisy but notably small protests in the last few days; the zealots who blocked a highway with burning tyres and tried to disrupt Muslim prayers on Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the start of this week numbered mere dozens.

In other words, Mr Sharon is so far achieving exactly what he promised. At the president's Prairie Chapel Ranch, he got his reward. Mr Bush praised the Gaza pullout, expressed his “concern” at the settlement-building and reminded Israel that it must stick to the international “road map” peace plan. That meant “no expansion of settlements”, he said three times, pointedly failing to note that the road map actually stipulates no construction of any kind; according to Israel, building within existing settlement boundaries, themselves broad and sometimes fuzzy, is not “expansion”. In the same breath, he repeated his support for Israel's holding on to the main settlement blocks, where three-quarters of the West Bank settlers live.…
Packs of media watchdogs scrutinise every news item, providing daily reams of proof that the world's media are both riddled with Israel-haters and controlled by a Zionist conspiracy. For the former view, subscribe to the mailing lists of Independent Media Review Analysis or Palestinian Media Watch—just don't confuse it with Palestine Media Watch, which (along with others) dishes out similar vitriol for anything that seems too pro-Israel.

However, in informational as well as military terms, the Palestinians are far outgunned. Israel has press officers in every ministry and embassy and an annual PR-training course in Washington, DC, for selected spokespeople. The foreign ministry has a 24-hour monitoring centre which analyses coverage in several languages, counts the airtime given to Israeli and Palestinian spokespeople down to the last second, and sends out real-time electronic reports on it to officials. Even so, says Mr Meir, he is pushing to make things more systematic, to get his colleagues to weigh up how every decision will play in the media, especially the foreign media.

The Israeli army, too, has learned lessons during the second intifada (which began in 2000), according to Ruth Yaron, its chief spokeswoman. Soldiers are trained on how to act around cameras. Press officers take part in planning operations—helping, for instance, to time them to match media deadlines—and army camera teams go along on them, providing footage (eg, of arms-smuggling tunnels and would-be suicide bombers caught at checkpoints) that goes out to the media.

As the occupied underdog, the Palestinians should have a natural advantage. But, says a Palestinian official, “The Israelis have a horrible product but they spend a lot of time in marketing, and they succeed, whereas the Palestinians have a really good product, but we invest nothing in selling it.”

As a legacy of Yasser Arafat's one-man domination of power, there is no government press office (there is an information ministry, but nobody is quite sure what it does); no co-ordinated message; no systematic media monitoring. Public statements mostly come either from officials who do not have media training or from public personalities who do but are not in the government. One result has been an inability to capitalise on things that should have been huge PR victories, such as last year's International Court of Justice ruling against Israel's West Bank barrier.

“I don't think many of our officials understand the importance of the media,” says Hanan Ashrawi, one of those public personalities, “and those who do want to be [in the media] themselves.” Some of the PA's more enlightened leaders are pushing for a better strategy, “but it's difficult”, says Ghassan Khatib, the planning minister, “when you take into consideration the nature of the people involved, the lack of a system and lack of discipline.”

Even Hamas, the Islamist party that will challenge the ruling Fatah for legislative and municipal seats this year, is more media-savvy, grumbles the Palestinian official. Earlier this month it announced its decision to run in English, a sign that it realises its shift into politics is as important a message to the West as it is to Palestinians.…
con·cept: “constructive ambiguity”