In the course of the past two weeks we have been the target of parallel media campaigns launched from headquarters in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Prime Ariel Minister Sharon has been interviewed by the Israeli media, even in his bedroom slippers, to mark the first anniversary of his election victory. Palestinian leader Arafat is obliged by circumstance to invite Israeli journalists to visit him in order to speak through their good offices to the Israeli public. Both, it should be noted, are speaking only to the Israeli public.
Sharon pats his sheep and displays fistfuls of earth to prove he is in touch with reality. Arafat reassures us that his order of priorities for the right of return involves “only” 200,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. The impression is that Arafat is trying first and foremost to show that the “punishment” imposed on him by Sharon two months ago–confinement to Ramallah– has in no way bowed the leader of the Palestinian people.
Neither of the two is convincing. Like Sharon, Arafat comes across as someone constrained by his PR advisors to do what he doesn’t enjoy doing; he would much prefer to dispense with the media. Sharon, too, will continue to prefer to talk “off the record.” When confronted with journalists’ tape recorders he falls back on his well-known concepts: Arafat is irrelevant; without seven days of quiet, political talks won’t be renewed; no one will partition Jerusalem. Arafat, in response, needles Sharon cautiously, exploiting the cameras to display just how popular he is. All this, against a backdrop of reports on the orchestrated pilgrimage of Palestinians to Arafat’s besieged headquarters in Ramallah. Totally unconvincing we already mentioned? Where is the political plan?
Arafat, like Sharon, emerges as a stubborn client: bad for the interviewer, very bad for the interviewee. You come to him with a list of questions and he responds with partial sentences. Instead of answers, you receive worn out slogans. And all the while, hundreds of thousands on both sides are desperate to see some white smoke at the end of the tunnel of violence. How, they ask, can we break the vicious circle of mutual recriminations? Can someone in Jerusalem or Ramallah reassure us that this conflict won’t escalate yet further?
One of my internet conversation partners, a hard up teacher in a West Bank refugee camp, writes me two or three times a week and describes what he and his family go through with the roadblocks, the tanks, the terrible economic distress. His descriptions, in elegant Arabic, are very hard to digest. “Does Arafat have a solution?” I ask him. It turns out my correspondent is looking for answers only on the Israeli side.
Under present circumstances it’s hard to find media on our side that will stand up for Arafat. Israelis are more attracted by the latest idea: to move on to an alternative leadership drawn from Arafat’s entourage. Abu Alaa, Abu Maazen, Sari Nusseibeh, Rajoub, Dahlan–all have been presented to Israeli news consumers as people who have become acquainted with their politics and politicians, and who can realistically identify the red lines, the room for maneuver in the game of power. They address the Israeli in his own language; none of them threaten us with more martyrs.
The Israeli man on the street looks ready to grab onto a new Palestinian persona. Meanwhile Arafat just adds new furrows to our brows every time he pulls out of thin air accusations of “depleted uranium” and poisoned wells. Better, honorable Rais, to explain the Karine A affair. Believe me, Chairman Arafat, if you just looked straight at the camera of Israel TV Channel 1 or 2, stopped throwing out empty promises, and talked about what is really bothering you and what you intend to do about it in energetic cooperation with the Israeli peace camp, you would win it over in minutes.
The op-ed as insurance policy.
Smadar Perry is Middle East Editor of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.