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On the Palestinians' PR front


The Palestinian Authority, the government led by Yasser Arafat, is far from being a dream client for a lobbyist or public relations firm in the United States. Edward Abington, the former U.S. diplomat hired by the Palestinians to publicize their cause, acknowledges it himself.

As part of the Washington public relations firm Bannerman & Associates, Abington began working for the Palestinian Authority in 1999 under a three-year, $2.25 million contract. He is a former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem - the senior American representative in the city - but has no illusions about the difficulty of promoting Arafat's actions.

"God knows the Palestinians have made a lot of mistakes," Abington says in his Washington office a few blocks north of the White House. His mission, he says, is not to bash Israel but to get the Palestinians' point of view across. "If you leave the field to Israel, then Israelis speak for the Palestinians. Palestinians have to speak for themselves. That's what we're trying to achieve."

He maintains, too, that accepting only Israel's version of events hurts the United States.

"U.S. interests are not served if one party" - the Palestinians - "is totally demoralized," Abington says. "You have to make people realize that there's another 'narrative' out there. You have to look at both sides or your policy will fail."

It is significant that it is Abington, not a Palestinian, making this point.

"Arabs undervalue the role of media and the opportunities available" to get their message across, says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, founded in 1985 to represent Arab-American political interests. To persuade Palestinian leaders to methodically present their version of events, Zogby says, "is like pulling teeth."

"We have to try to do what they don't do, but it's very tough," he says.

Zogby dismisses Palestinian complaints about the power of lobbyists for Israel: "I tell [the Palestinians], 'It looks like they control the field because you're not playing them.'"

For Americans, Arafat seems an especially troubling figure. "Arafat has said very little," says Abington. "His unwillingness to address Western audiences has made it much more difficult. They want a definite statement from Arafat about what a peace would look like. This is a theme I've been talking to them about for years now."

Why won't Arafat talk?

"I'm not quite sure," Abington says. "I think he views it as a concession [to the Israelis]: 'Why should I play that card unless I get something in return?'"

Abington, who says he occasionally speaks with Arafat, argues that the Palestinians must develop a long-term publicity strategy, rather than just a policy of responses to Israeli actions, if they want to make headway with American lawmakers and the American public. "But I don't think [Arafat's] mind works that way. It's not the way he's operated for the last 35 years."

Part of Abington's job is orchestrating visits of Palestinian groups to Capitol Hill, the State Department and the National Security Council, as well as to newspaper editorial boards. Most of the Palestinians are U.S.- and British-trained lawyers from the Negotiating Support Unit, an arm of the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"In the last four or five months they've sent about a delegation a month to Washington," Abington says, and each delegation usually stays for a week. (This schedule is an improvement over previous Palestinian efforts, but is "nothing compared to what the Israelis do," he says.)

Another part of his job is helping place articles on newspapers' Op-Ed pages. He's proud of helping steer a joint Israeli-Palestinian essay - the authors were Yossi Beilin, justice minister in former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government; and Yasser Abed Rabbo, minister of culture and information for the Palestinian Authority - in The New York Times. "Two years ago, there were no Op-Eds by senior Palestinians," Abington says.

Abington gets relatively high marks from the Israeli Embassy through its spokesman, Mark Regev. "The Palestinians have some excellent spokespeople," Regev says. "The problem is not with them. You can't sell a product that isn't sellable."

Abington acknowledges that much of his job these days is "damage control." With the failure of the Camp David summit talks between Arafat and Barak last summer and the outbreak of violence 11 months ago, he finds it harder to persuade Americans to view the Middle East conflict through Palestinian eyes.

There is compelling reason to do so, Abington says: Violence breeds more violence and poverty, thus more impoverished, radicalized Palestinians willing to strap on a bomb and walk into an Israeli restaurant.

He is not optimistic. "Israeli policies of dealing with the intifada, especially the assassinations, are making Hamas the most popular organization on the West Bank and in Gaza," he says of the radical Islamic group. "Arafat's authority is challenged. A year hence, Israel will be facing a Hamas-led West Bank and Gaza."

The failed Camp David talks became an example of botched Palestinian public relations, say Abington and other lobbyists for the Palestinians. The message many Americans heard was that Arafat rejected a generous offer by Barak: a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and roughly 90 percent of the West Bank, with a Palestinian capital in part of Jerusalem.

It seemed clear: Arafat had once again failed to seize an opportunity; he was an impossible negotiating partner; he didn't really want peace.

But Abington disagrees.

"The Israelis pushed the line that it was all Arafat's fault, that at the moment of truth he was unable to make the kind of decisions and compromises necessary," he says. "But what was offered was by no means a basis for a viable Palestinian state, and [the Palestinians] said no. They were under tremendous pressure at the end from Clinton and Barak to accept."

The reaction was immediate and harsh, not least from President Clinton, who blamed Arafat for the talks' failure. "It became accepted wisdom that the Palestinians had rejected an offer that gave them everything they wanted," Abington says. "It simply was not true."

After Camp David collapsed, Americans were taken aback by the Palestinians' violent reaction. Khalil Jahshan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC, focuses on the good news.

Jahshan, who is also director of his organization's lobbying wing - called the NAAA-ADC after last year's merger of the ADC with the National Association of Arab-Americans - points to polls by his group that show 50 percent of Americans now favor a state for the Palestinians.

"There has been a tremendous change," he says. "It proves you can impact public opinion. The question is, how do you translate change in public opinion into a change in policy?"

Jahshan sees a silver lining in the results of another recent poll: Most Americans support neither Israelis nor Palestinians - they're sick of both. He finds this encouraging: "It gives an opportunity to the Palestinians to really explain their side."

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