Today, Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief Representative of the PLO to the United States, penned a response to Moshe Yaalon’s article on the Middle East Channel of Foreign Policy.com. While faulty policies are at the core of Israel’s public relations woes, the two articles are an excellent case study in the failures of Israeli rhetoric and public relations. The Foreign Policy readership is highly mobilized, educated, and invested in world affairs. A side by side comparison of three components of the articles illustrates the extent to which Areikat understands this, and Yaalon does not.
(All emphasis added for effect)
Yaalon: The Palestinians are the Real Obstacle to Peace
Areikat: Palestinians Must be Free
The pro-Israel headline is against “The Palestinians" with a capital T, and plays the blame card from the start. The Palestinian headline personalizes the Palestinians and is in support of them and their freedom, a universally positive word.
2) Opening Blows:
Yaalon: “Unfortunately, what stands between the Palestinians and eventual statehood is their insincerity when it comes to real peace. Israel has repeatedly proposed the independence that the Palestinians ostensibly desire.”
Areikat: “Ya'alon's inflammatory rhetoric is designed to disguise the simple truth that the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds is the result of Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory, and the subsequent denial of equality and liberty to the people of our region.”
Many readers likely perceived Yaalon's claim of “insincerity” both vague and ironic coming from a country which has stalled on freezing settlements despite clear incentives to do so. Areikat frames the issue as a land conflict and a tangible policy problem. Areikat also links the problem to “denial of equality and liberty,” values which strongly mobilize American policy audiences. Throughout his piece, Areikat shows clear understanding of his audience, noting that discourse on negotiations “can make even a policy wonk yawn” in an attempt to connect.
Yaalon: “And all Palestinians must come to terms, once and for all, with the fact that the Jewish people will continue to exercise their historical right to sovereignty in their homeland, a sovereignty that guarantees equal rights for all of Israel's citizens.”
Areikat: “To achieve our aims, we are entitled to resort to all peaceful, nonviolent, and legal means. This includes, but is not limited to, taking our case to the United Nations and other international forums, calling on other countries to recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and working with the international community to realize Palestinian national rights of self-determination and statehood.”
Yaalon’s recommendation is the policy version of “deal with it.” Areikat addresses the insincerity argument head on by using language like “nonviolent” and “legal,” and emphasizing a commitment to the “United Nations and other international forums” and the “international community” to gain “self-determination” and “statehood.” The extent to which this has actually been the Palestinian strategy historically is a matter of debate to say the least. But Areikat understands that these buzz words are what sway American policy audiences.
For Israel to catch up, it must embody the rhetoric of human rights. Here is a reworking of each section as an example:
Old title: The Palestinians are the Real Obstacle to Peace
New Title: We Must not Allow Those who Oppose Peace to Prevent It
Old attack: ““Unfortunately, what stands between the Palestinians and eventual statehood is their insincerity when it comes to real peace. Israel has repeatedly proposed the independence that the Palestinians ostensibly desire.”
New attack: “Unfortunately, some radical ideologues with whom Israel negotiates seem to be ambivalent about the value of peace. We on the Israeli side do not share this ambivalence. We cannot afford to do so when the rights and freedoms of our people are at stake. We must move past our differences with the Palestinians to find a solution based on mutual respect and common ground.”
Old recommendation: ““And all Palestinians must come to terms, once and for all, with the fact that the Jewish people will continue to exercise their historical right to sovereignty in their homeland, a sovereignty that guarantees equal rights for all of Israel's citizens.”
New recommendation: “We call on our Palestinian brothers and sisters to work with us to guarantee equality and freedom for all citizens whose lives have been touched by this conflict. Noone understands better than the Israelis the struggle for national recognition, sovereignty, and self-determination. Together, we can make our mutual hopes and dreams a reality.
Note that while the new versions are certainly more pie-in-the-sky, they make essentially the same argument as the old versions. To be sure, they are less representative of what Israeli government officials may say behind closed doors. But public relations is less about swaying opinions and more about placing oneself squarely within the beliefs of that community of opinion. Reclaiming the rhetoric of human rights, rather than sticking to old themes of Palestinian intransigence, will serve Israel much better in the long run as it attempts to navigate the murky public relations world in support of its vital interests.