The Abbas peace offensive

The setting would have been the stuff of novels. Windy roads in an ancient Middle Eastern city. A Hollywood celebrity. A businessman, journalists, artists, filmmakers, lawyers, peace activists and talk about imagery, politics, personalities, Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
No, this is no fiction. It was real, and it took place this week in the home of Palestinian businessman Zahi Khouri. This refurbished house overlooking some of the holiest sites in the Old City of Jerusalem was the setting of an interesting discussion about Middle East politics this week. The star was Richard Gere and the guests, articulate, young, energetic Palestinians. Many had not been in Jerusalem for years and were invited to talk politics, art and, of course, what can be done to improve their people’s image. The case of the people of Tibet and their PR offensive was discussed as one of many models that Palestinians may want to emulate.

Khouri, who in the post-Oslo era left the comfort of New York and Florida to set up a Coca-Cola factory in Ramallah, put the latest challenge for Palestinians very simply. “The upcoming visit of Abu Mazen to Washington will have far-reaching effects on the chances of peace in the Middle East.”

The discussion went on for quite some time on the issue of image, media and the Palestinian narrative. Hours earlier, Gere had met in Ramallah Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He had told journalists that the world needed to see the real Palestinians. Abbas extended the scheduled ten minute meeting to over an hour. “He really understands what he needs to do,” Gere told his Palestinian friends. But the understanding of the importance of media narrative and imagery by the new Palestinian leader is certainly not enough to actually get the kind of media that is required to change an image that, in many cases, has been burnt into Westerners’ minds.

While Palestinian opponents succeeded in turning the victims into villains, it will take a major effort, hard work, creativity and lots of money to put a dent in the bad press Palestinians have suffered from.

Certainly, any movement towards changing the image of the Palestinians must begin on the ground. In this area, the Palestinian leader’s record is impressive. Abbas has been hard at work putting into practice his election platform, calling for an immediate end to all forms of militarised Intifada. He has ordered the softening of the emotional images, sensationalism and video clips of Palestine TV, arrested rowdy gunmen, transferred undisciplined security officials, ordered military officials over 60 to retire, reduced 13 security apparatuses to three and ordered his security officials to strip wanted Palestinians of unregistered weapons.

Change requires a multitiered approach. Until this moment, the newly elected Palestinian president has not had time to work on his communication policy. Nabil Abu Rudeina continues to fulfil the day-to-day needs as spokesman, but many close advisors to the president say that this is only an interim situation. If that is the case, what is needed is a revolutionary effort. An entire communications department, made up of media professionals (and certainly not political activists) must be set up. This department must have the confidence, access and resources necessary to make a difference.

To be effective, special effort will be needed in order to keep this team well informed, empowered and give it space. At the same time that a communication team is being set up, a strategic policy group needs to be developed with the express goal of providing content to this new communications offensive.

The strategic-content team needs to have two basic geographic targets: Washington and Tel Aviv. The success of any Palestinian media offensive will be worthless if it doesn’t have at least two basic desks, one aimed at America and the other at Israel. The US desk must think in a multitiered way. It needs to think of national press and local press. Special attention should be given to established media and to alternative media. Key media organs and journalists must be targeted. Considering the fact that many journalists are lazy and need to be spoon-fed, professionals must be able to create media kits made up of text, still photos and video images.

The key to the process must be the concept of humanising the Palestinians. The past four years have shaped an image of Palestinians as monsters. At minimum, it created a negative stereotype of terrorists who lack appreciation for life and of faceless, nameless Palestinians.

Gere has energised Palestinians and reminded them of the possibilities that the world out there will be receptive to seeing the real Palestinian people. As the first Washington visit of a Palestinian president in this century approaches, the ball is in the court of the Palestinian leadership. Its success and that of the Palestinians will depend in large measure on how this visit will be produced.