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Arafat knows how to exploit images of Palestinian victimization.

by James D. Besser

May 24, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Israel is fighting a war of attrition with the Palestinians, and militarily, the Jewish state is holding its own. But it's taking a drubbing in the battle over public opinion here and around the world.

In part, that failure is a natural result of the kind of battle that is shaping up -- a powerful, high-tech military machine trying to root out terrorists and insurgents from a population that supports them.

But Israel is also losing, because its leaders just don't seem to care enough about how they are viewed abroad.

The government has hired a leading U.S. public relations firm to generate support during this difficult period, and a group of Jewish philanthropists is setting up a foundation to do the same thing.

But over the years, various Israeli governments have commissioned expensive PR studies and programs, only to ignore their recommendations.

All the PR gurus on Madison Avenue won't help much if the leaders in Jerusalem don't clarify their message and expend some of their own precious energy in bringing it to the American public. And mere public relations won't offset policies that may make political or military sense but that play into the hands of Palestinian propagandists.

The irony is that Israel enjoyed an unprecedented edge in the fight for world opinion in the days after Yasser Arafat spurned its offer at Camp David.

That, in fact, is one reason Arafat resumed his role as terrorist-in-chief; even the European countries that traditionally fawn over him had a hard time explaining why he fled Camp David, apparently terrified by the prospect of an actual agreement. New violence, and the predictable Israeli response, might win back some of that support, Arafat apparently reasoned.

Arafat may have blown Camp David big-time, but he knows how to exploit images of Palestinian victimization effectively.

The imagery of the emerging battle quickly turned the tide of world opinion against Israel: video clips of powerful helicopter gunships firing missiles at refugee camps, Palestinian civilians wailing after bulldozers level their houses, dispossessed farmers watching as their olive groves are uprooted.

Arafat effectively exploited Israel's traditional vulnerability on the issue of settlements, turning world attention away from his own preeminent role in triggering the new bloodshed.

But Israeli officials seem blind to this tidal wave of negative imagery, or else they see it as something that can be fixed with a few PR experts -- or with dutiful Jewish leaders here.

The Sharon government has shown little interest in sending high-ranking emissaries to this country to explain to Americans -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- the reasons for the intensifying Israeli response to the new intifada.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres did meet with a number of Jewish groups recently, as well as countless reporters, but he is widely seen as part of a government whose hard-line views he does not really share.

Israel lacks an ambassador in Washington who is adept at appearing before the cameras and explaining Israel's positions. David Ivry, the current envoy, is widely praised for his work with the Pentagon, but he is not the high-level crisis spokesman Israel needs at this juncture, in the view of some Jewish leaders.

In several recent conference calls, Israeli officials have signaled that it's the job of Jewish groups here to shore up Israel's deteriorating image. This week Jewish leaders were doing their best to do just that, but in private, they say they haven't been given the resources to do the job.

How can they defend Israel's controversial use of F-16s against Palestinian targets when the Sharon government itself has offered no coherent justification for the action; when even Israeli newspapers that have supported the prime minister blasted the attacks as ineffective and reckless?

How can they counter demands for a settlements freeze when the government offers mostly spin and obfuscation and funny numbers pointing to the demand for "natural growth?"

Israel expects American Jewish leaders to react indignantly to any hint that Washington is actively pushing a settlements freeze, but some polls show that a majority of Israelis might favor one.

Community groups around the country report getting very little help from Israeli consulates as they try to counter biased media coverage and increasingly effective public relations efforts by Arab-American groups.

Israel and the Palestinians are fighting a war that will force the government in Jerusalem to use tactics that will offend and shock the world -- a reaction that will be multiplied by the fact that so many other nations are looking for excuses to bash the Jewish state.

But Israel's leaders, by not waging an active campaign using their best representatives and by not offering cogent arguments for their actions, makes that job far more difficult. They compound the problem when they play domestic politics when choosing tactics in this grim new war.

And if reports that Sharon now wants to destabilize the Palestinian Authority and drive Arafat back into exile prove accurate, all the PR experts on the planet will not help slow Israel's slide in world standing.

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