Showdown in the media

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When two rivals were in conflict in the Middle Ages in Europe, they resolved the issue in a duel. In the Arabian Peninsula, from the beginning of time, two adversaries battled in poetry until one claimed victory over the other.

Here in the Middle East, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to life two months ago, each throwing down the gauntlet and landing punches through statements and press conferences. Journalists don’t attend these press conferences in search of new developments (they are always the same thing), but only to be a part of this historic face-off and add a line to their resumes.

All of a sudden, Arafat and Sharon have become generous in granting interviews and statements without prepared speeches. Everything is now clear to them and their eyes are turned away from notes diligently prepared by their advisors.

“Sharon will not reveal his vision of the relationship with the Palestinians or of a final solution except at the negotiating table, which will be after the security situation allows,” we were told when Palestinian journalists asked an advisor close to the prime minister what Sharon really wants but hasn’t disclosed. “This way he leaves himself a margin for negotiation.”

The Palestinian president’s position was also an amazing silence. Palestinians had begun to see his position as a giant riddle–the silence puzzled them, at the same time that conflicting signals were coming from other Palestinian leaders.

When university professors asked President Arafat why he had stopped addressing his people during the more than one year of confrontations with Israel, he shrugged, “What should I say?” He then went on to express not bewilderment, but a conviction that it was necessary to refrain from speaking at times when his words would be echoed in Washington, Tel Aviv and European capitals, misinterpreted by the media and his own words turned against him.

The leaders’ advisors had been worried that each would make statements not serving their cause. Suddenly, however, there was an about-face. The flow of statements from Sharon and Arafat gushed out in repetition–they made themselves very clear.

Now Sharon says, “Arafat is not a partner; he is a terrorist and we cannot work with him. We must look for an alternative.” Too, Sharon has begun to boast that he agrees to a Palestinian state, to be established after all, after some time and after changes among Palestinians.

Arafat, for his part, says over and over again, “The Israeli tanks do not scare me and will not stop me from continuing on this path to liberate my country, even if a million martyrs result…One hundred percent of the lands occupied in 1967, with a just solution to the refugee problem.”

Why has Sharon disclosed what he wants without arriving at the negotiating table? And how did Arafat conclude that he should unveil his reasons for insisting at Camp David on a state with real sovereignty, on 100 percent of the land occupied in 1967 (or its equivalent), with a just solution to the refugee problem? Perhaps for the first time in the history of his leadership, Arafat has resorted to writing articles in American newspapers to communicate his words and position to the American administration, which refuses to listen to him.

After Israel convinced the American administration of its version of the Karine A ship affair, and the Arab leaders stopped addressing the Palestinian leader, Sharon saw before him the long-awaited chance to wring Arafat’s neck. It was time to make him surrender–or cause him death. That is why Sharon has finally relaxed and broken his silence.

But at the very moment when Arafat had nothing more to fear, when Israeli tanks were practically on his balcony, the barrels of their guns pointing in the window of his Ramallah presidential headquarters, Arafat began to sing a different chorus. It was, “We welcome martyrdom for Jerusalem” and its message was strong and fearsome, implying that the political back and forth had reached its brink and deciding point. Arafat was threatening the rules of the game, loathe to surrender and telling the entire world that he does not fear death.

When the laws of classical warfare do not apply, negotiations take place in the media. Arafat seemed indifferent to Israeli military force and US support for Sharon’s position. He felt that his adversary was not leaving him any room to maneuver, thus forcing him to reverse the rules of the game, refusing to surrender and meeting death fearlessly.

Arafat may have used primitive methods to express this, but they were effective. Even the United States got the message (though it was whispered that the US wished Arafat would not discuss martyrdom or jihad in front of his supporters.)

Arafat’s declarations vacillated between addressing his supportive masses in language sending hints to Israel and the United States and an enormous flow of newspaper articles, culminating in his article on “The Palestinian Vision of Peace.”

It is not surprising that “The Palestinian Vision of Peace” was written in English and in the pages of the New York Times–and not in the pages of the Palestinian publication Al Hayat Al Jadida. Nor is it any coincidence that most of Sharon’s articles were written in English, as well.

The target audiences of these media negotiations are Washington and European capitals, above anyone else.

Nabil Khatib is the Jerusalem correspondent for the Lebanese satellite channel MBC and director of the Birzeit University Media Center.

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