Mideast imagemakers woo public as diplomats keep news blackout


THURMONT - Sealed with secrecy, the Camp David peace talks are a black hole within a riddle, an impenetrable challenge for the scores of journalists covering the negotiations from a nearby elementary school.

News briefings by U.S. officials disclose entrees on the Camp David dinner menus and not much more. Getting an anonymous U.S. official to confirm "progress" in the talks is considered a decent scoop.

"Welcome to the daily press blackout," was how a State Department spokesman greeted reporters at Camp David Thursday.

U.S. officials believe the less said publicly about the trial balloons, compromises and ultimatums being exchanged by the Israelis and Palestinians inside the presidential retreat, the better. Knowing that leaked details could derail the talks, the negotiators have mainly complied with the blackout.

But orbiting around the void at Camp David is a ring of advocates, public relations specialists and spokesmen from both the Israeli and Palestinian camps who are making extraordinary attempts to bend world opinion to their side.

Their efforts at "public diplomacy" demonstrate the huge and politically volatile stakes in the Camp David talks. The launching of publicity machines also suggests that both sides expect the negotiations to yield significant results instead of breaking down in acrimony or producing only small progress, as many expect, foreign affairs analysts said.

"All the sides are out there," said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East specialist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They're doing a lot more" than in previous peace talks. "They know there's a court of public diplomacy."

The Palestinians have deployed Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, along with Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian education minister who holds a doctorate in medieval literature from the University of Virginia. The Israelis have unleashed Avraham Burg, who is the speaker of the Israeli parliament, as well as at least two Cabinet members and other officials.

Not privy to the details of negotiations, these spin masters and mistresses are free to travel across the United States and give interview after interview without breaking the White House's news embargo. And journalists, bereft of any news to report, are happy to quote them.

"Obviously there's a great amount of media interest," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington who is helping to coordinate Israel's influence campaign. "From Israel's perspective, without going into the details of negotiations, we want to get our positions out there, that we're doing all we can to make this process work."

Competing with the official Israeli and Palestinian mouthpieces are opposition members from both sides eager to criticize the peace talks or otherwise have their say.

A half-dozen members of the radical Palestinian opposition traveled to Washington last week to air their views about the need to create a Palestinian homeland and to guarantee a right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees. On Friday, they obtained an audience with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in Emmitsburg, near Camp David.

Limor Livnot, a legislative member of Israel's conservative Likud bloc, showed up at the Thurmont media center Friday to say that "the Israelis will not give any consent to put an iron curtain in the middle of Jerusalem." She was referring to reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had agreed to give Palestinians control of portions of East Jerusalem.

For the Palestinians, influencing U.S. and world public opinion is a skill that needs polishing.

"Frankly, the Palestinians have done a lousy job in articulating and getting across their point of view on these negotiations," said Abington, who is now a political consultant for the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians are unfamiliar with democracy and often devote their energies to partisan infighting rather than wooing the outside world. But part of the problem, Abington said, is that they lack the resources of a sovereign nation.

"You can tell who has the big guns and who doesn't," he said. "The Israelis have rolled out at least five media teams with all the resources and the background. And the Palestinians are basically doing it only with Hanan," who, he adds, "has really been making the rounds."

Articulate and well-dressed, Ashrawi first hit the world stage in 1991, when Israelis and Palestinians sat down together in Madrid.

"Hanan is clearly the most media savvy of the Palestinians," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "It was her ability as a spokeswoman that later made her minister of education."

In the past week, Ashrawi has been on every major news and radio network and given interviews to major newspapers. A human rights activist who has fought for greater rights for Palestinian women, she has periodically fallen out with Arafat but is now the primary spokeswoman for the Palestinian side." I believe that the tremendous human tragedy of the Palestinian refugees is an essential component for ... an equitable solution to the Palestinian question and to achieving a genuine peace," she told CNN last week. "Israel should stop saying that it has any room for any Jewish person who wants to go to Israel, but it doesn't have room for the original Palestinians, the original inhabitants of the land."

The fate of 3.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants is a centerpiece of the Camp David talks, along with the borders of a potential Palestinian state and the political future of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.

If Israel can bring more resources to bear in the publicity contest, that doesn't mean it has always taken advantage of them or used them wisely. Political analysts see its present media barrage as one of the lessons learned in the early 1990s, when initial talks between the Palestinians and the government of Yitzhak Rabin produced a firestorm of protest in the important American Jewish community.

"The Rabin government got burned by not reaching out to several constituencies, including American Jews and the American Congress," Lasensky said. "They blew it."

A brilliant demonstration of the Israelis' new media skills was their announcement of the cancellation of a deal to sell sophisticated radar gear to China, Lasensky said. The United States opposed the sale, fearing it would better equip China to threaten Taiwan.

The Israelis announced the cancellation Wednesday, the second day of the Camp David talks. Given the news blackout and the fact that reporters had already done their first-day, scene-setting pieces, Israel knew the story would get big coverage, giving Americans a favorable view of their country as the peace talks were heating up.

The senior member of the Israeli media team is Burg, the speaker of the Knesset. He debated Ashrawi on "Crossfire." Also assisting are Joseph Alpher, a former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, and now special assistant to Barak; Michael Melchior, a rabbi and minister of the diaspora in Barak's Cabinet; and Yuli Tamir, minister for immigration.

The Israeli team isn't just contacting reporters and editors. Alpher, especially, has been crossing the country, meeting with Jewish groups and trying to sell them on Barak's high-risk peace initiatives. Others have been contacting members of Congress, mindful of the billions in U.S. financial aid that everybody expects to accompany any peace agreement.

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