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Copyright 2002 Jerusalem Post
August 7, 2002

HEADLINE: Let PR constrain policy

BYLINE: David J. Forman

A number of years ago, a delegation of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in his office in Gaza City. It was during the days when even former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was shaking the chairman's hand. Having established ourselves as a human-rights organization that protested Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, we felt in a unique position to raise the issue of the Palestinian Authority's abuses of its own people - particularly the summary execution of alleged collaborators, the frequent incarceration of Palestinian human-rights workers and the arrest of virtually any Palestinian who, via the Palestinian press, dared to publicly criticize Arafat's regime.

Recognizing the fact that we had little chance of arguing against these abuses on a moral plane, we tried to reason with Arafat through a public-relations lens: how to win the support of the average Israeli for the peace process. We were aware then of the thinking that has since led to calls by many Palestinians, such as Sari Nusseibeh or Hanan Ashrawi, to stop suicide bombings, not based on the moral repugnance of such acts, but because such actions only "hurt the Palestinian cause."

And so, we decided to address one major issue with Arafat that, should he cooperate, would surely have a positive impact on the Israeli populace - the search for information regarding Israelis missing in action from the 1982 Lebanon War. The matter seemed rather simple and safe, something that Arafat could readily understand in terms of the public-relations value.

The background was not complicated. Arafat had returned to Yitzhak Rabin half of Zachary Baumel's army identification tag. After Ahmed Jibril was assassinated, amongst his belongings, Baumel's tag was found and given to Arafat. As part of one of the many agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Arafat had agreed to supply more information about the fate of the missing. Indeed, during the course of our conversation with him, he said that the information was readily available through his connections in Syria, but because of the tense relations between the PLO and the Syrian government, if his personal contact in Syria were to be contacted at that time, the "mole" would surely be in great danger.

Despite these strained relations, it was not unreasonable to expect that Arafat could retrieve at least some information that would help shed some light on the whereabouts of the MIAs, be they alive or dead. Despite repeated appeals to Arafat on this issue by RHR, there has been no information forthcoming.

The matter of the MIAs is one that all Israelis are united on. The public-relations coup for the PA and for Arafat himself, even now, under the most difficult of circumstances, would be considerable if only he would address the issue. We Israelis need to gain some emotional rest from the pain of not knowing what happened to the MIAs. The human suffering of the Baumel family, along with the families of the other two missing, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, should come to an end. Unfortunately, Arafat seems incapable of operating even on the level of public relations. And so, if in this matter he cannot or will not do anything that would alter his image, then how can anyone expect anything different in the area of suicide bombings?

ISRAEL, FOR its part, is also incompetent in the realm of public relations. Our PR is plagued by policies that seem to have total disregard for their moral consequences: closures, extended curfews, pass laws, house demolitions, water shortages, food deprivations, bombings, etc. Since Israel, like the Palestinian Authority, does not respond to appeals to alter its course of action based on moral considerations, then once again, the public-relations rationale for changing its present policy must be applied. If any of the above excesses were eliminated or even modified, then there might be a modicum of hope on the Palestinian side that would entice them to reduce the level of violence.

We can only hope that the dreadful public image that the world has of each partner to this conflict would somehow influence both Palestinians and Israelis for the good, before they carry out their mutually destructive policies. Though the moral yardstick would be much preferred, both the Palestinians and Israelis would be better off if concern for public relations became a practical constraint on their policies.

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