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Control the language, control the debate

By Avi Davis
web posted January 20, 2003

Anyone who watches television these days knows that there is not one but two wars raging simultaneously in the Middle East. One, of course, is the ground war between Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli army. The other is the war of information fought over even more treacherous terrain and slugged out in the trenches of the cable networks, television stations, radio talk shows and foreign news desks around the world.

The second conflict is not new and for the past twenty years the Palestinians have been its overwhelming victors. The reasons for this could take up many pages, but it is enough to list just a few of the main Palestinian triumphs. They include:

1. Inventing, when only 40 years ago none existed, a Palestinian national identity, complete with a distinct history and culture;
2. Obtaining a monopoly on Arab misery and suffering, to the exclusion of the millions of other Arabs who endure desperate conditions under repressive regimes elsewhere;
3. Successfully convincing most of the world that Palestinian terrorism is a legitimate form of freedom fighting and that political gains can be made by it;
4. Mimicking the Zionist movement itself, in all its particulars, from the concept of a political liberation movement right down to the right of return.

Despite the obvious and consistent losses suffered by Israel in this public relations debacle, there have been a few successes, most notably when Israel sought to frame the debate itself. Israel therefore enjoyed a brief respite on the media front in the two months following Yasser Arafat's rejection of Ehud Barak's Camp David peace offers. In that balmy summer of 2000, Israel seemed to have been hoisted into the public relations big leagues, reveling in world approval.

It was a false summer. The campaign of terrorism unleashed by Arafat, also brought with it an international backlash for which Israel was completely unprepared. Cast on the defensive, the country scrambled to respond and then lost control of the debate as the Palestinians gave their own name to the violence, identified Ariel Sharon as its catalyst and then convinced most of the world that their heinous acts of terror were the products of despair. A shocked Barak continued negotiations even as violence continued.

But even in the most trying of circumstances, a communications war can be successfully controlled and even won if a protagonist is prepared to aggressively commandeer its language. Just ask George Bush. Six months ago, shortly after the Passover Massacre, he refused to accept the label of suicide bombing to describe Palestinian self detonations in urban centers that kill and maim innocent civilians. He chose the more appropriate term 'homicide bombings.' Suddenly this act of barbarism was stripped of its very personal associations (the word suicide, after-all, dignifies the killer as an individual who selflessly gives up his life for a cause) and transformed his act into willful murder. Bush's brave decision dissolved any romance that martyrs attach to their acts of violence. His recasting of the expression has now folded into common parlance.

Words then matter. How we describe incidents and events, how we refer to facts on the ground, how we apply labels, can shape public understanding and opinion. If Israel is to win the information war it must learn to master crucial words and expressions in the debate.

Here are a few ways in which this can be done.

1. Substituting 'Judea and Samaria' for 'West Bank'. Under the British Mandate, the words West Bank signified nothing more than that - the west bank of the Jordan River which is for most of its length, not much of a river at all but a creek. So the real West Bank is a length of sloping ground of about 500 feet in width, 200 miles in length, which certainly does not include the 5,900 square miles claimed as part of the Palestinian homeland. Judea and Samaria are, on the other hand, ancient names for the area and were consistently used by travelers to the region in the 19th Century to describe them. More important is the deep historical ties the Jewish people have to these territories. Many of the Arab names for villages and cities in the region are Arabic corruptions of the original Hebrew (Mikmas for Michmash, Bayt Lahm for Beit Lehem). No matter what one's political views, use of the proper historical names for these territories serves to highlight the crucial fact that these areas are not occupied but disputed, which is, afterall, the official position of the government of Israel.

2. Substituting 'Palestinian violence' for 'Intifada' Palestinians have been allowed to define the conflict by giving it their own name and most particularly by appending the words Al Aqsa to distinguish this spate of terrorist assaults from an earlier uprising 15 years ago. 'Intifada' is Arabic for 'shaking off' and while we allow the Palestinians to define the current war as a rebellion, rather than as a campaign of terror that has descended into barbarism, we give them a weapon that can be wielded against us.

3. Substituting 'communities and townships' for 'settlements' Among the most pernicious myths is that the communities established by the government of Israel in Judea and Samaria are the prime obstacle to peace. So successful has been the Arab campaign to vilify the Israeli townships that the word settlement itself has come to be read as synonymous with evil. No matter what we believe the future disposition of the territories should be, those who live in the settlements are not evil and they are certainly not the obstacle to peace. The obstacle to peace is the rejectionist stance of the Palestinian leadership. The evil remains in men who are willing to kill innocent civilians without provocation or warning merely because they are Jews. Take back control over the word 'settlement' and a huge victory over Arab disinformation will be achieved.

4. Substituting 'cycle of rejection' for 'cycle of violence'. Commentators and politicians are fond of using the phrase 'cycle of violence' to describe Middle East events. It is employed, of course, to portray a certain moral symmetry between the two sides ' as if the retaliation to an act of terror is morally equivalent to the commission of the act itself. It is time to defeat this malicious notion once and for all.

If anyone refers again to a cycle of violence quickly correct them by telling them that the only 'cycle' in the Middle East is a cycle of rejection, with Palestinians rebuffing time and again in 1948, 1967, 1979 and 2000 options for either complete autonomy or statehood. History has shown that the Arab-Israeli dispute is not, in the end, about either territory, borders or justice. It is about revenge.

So words do count. Anyone who doubts it should remember Humpty Dumpty's admonition to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean"

"The question is," said Alice, "whether words can mean so many different things."

'The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master that's all."

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies.

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