Posted on December 20, 1999 in Washington Watch

At the opening of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Washington, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara’a delivered a most interesting set of remarks.

Despite the widespread criticism his remarks received in the U.S. and Israeli press, the Minister’s comments deserve more serious attention. They were unexpected and unusual–but they were useful and appropriate and challenging.

Shara’a opened with formal greetings and with diplomatic praise for U.S. President Bill Clinton’s efforts to restart the peace talks. He then went on to restate in a carefully crafted formula the Syrian view of the essence of the Israeli-Syrian track. For Syria, he noted peace “means the return of all of its occupied land.” With some sensitivity he observed that, for Israel, peace means “the end of the psychological fear in which the Israelis have been living”–which he noted was a direct result of the occupation itself.

Throughout the remainder of his statement Shara’a made a number of observations about peace and the promise that it holds for the future.

With peace, for example, he observed, would come the elimination of the “barrier of fear and anxiety” and in its place “trust and mutual feelings of peace and security.”

With peace would come “the end of the history of wars and conflicts” that “may well usher in a dialogue of civilizations and a honorable competitions”–“opening new horizons for totally new relations between peoples of the region.”

And, finally, the Foreign Minister asked a probing existential question when he observed that with peace will come, for the Arabs, a serious challenge to understand their own history and their self-definition as they reviewed the past 50 years and asked “whether the Arab-Israeli conflict defined Arab unity or frustrated it.”

Of course, Shara’a also, in a few short paragraphs, spoke eloquently of the suffering of displaced Syrians and noted how this suffering and how Syria’s own history has been ignored and misrepresented in the Western press. But the preponderance of the statement focused on the future and provided the U.S. press, for the first time, with a high level statement of Syria’s commitment to peace and Syria’s vision of a future Middle East that awaits “Arabs and Israelis and the U.S. and the world at large.”

Given the overwhelming positive tone of the statement, it might seem remarkable that it was viewed so negatively by the American and Israeli press. The problem is a result of the way the U.S. press works–and the failure of the Arab side to develop an offensive strategy to engage the press and influence it.

There were two groups of U.S. reporters covering the event. There were, for the most part, White House reporters, who were at the event because it took place outside the President’s office. There were also some U.S. foreign affairs reporters present–some of whom had flown in to Washington from their base in Jerusalem.

The White House press is heavily influenced by their environment and by “group think.” They, after all, sit all day, every day, at the White House and cover formal events and White House press briefings–which are, for the most part, uneventful. They work together and get their ideas and their interpretations of events from each other.

The overseas U.S. press operates largely out of Jerusalem. They know the Israelis and each other–they, too, are heavily influenced by their shared observations.

The opening event of the Syrian-Israeli talks was expected to be a non-event. A short opening comment by Clinton, possibly a handshake or a gesture and then an adjournment to the private talks. If anything, an enterprising reporter could have tried to get a few words of response to a shouted question as the three leaders withdrew into the White House.

Given this scenario, the reporters present would have had to mull over the non-event and interpret its meaning from the shreds of evidence presented to them. To help them, of course, would have been the “spin” of the official White House briefer and, if possible, the unofficial “spin” of “unnamed sources.”

What Shara’a did was break the mold. He delivered unexpected remarks to an audience that had no context in which to understand their import and no preparation to be able to interpret them.

What reporters were left with were their own prejudices and some “helpful” Israelis who provided both the “context” and the “interpretation.” The results were evident in the next day’s U.S. press, which delivered a scathing review of the Foreign Minister’s comments.

The White House and State Department did their best to defuse the situation. They sought to portray the private talks as cordial and “ice-breaking” and made it clear that the President had no negative reaction to the comments themselves.

There is a lesson in all of this. It is an old lesson that needs restating. Put quite simply, it is that the reality of an event or action is determined by how it is perceived–how it is understood. Now while it is most probably true that Foreign Minister Shara’a’s comments were understood and appreciated in Syria, Syrians were only one of the speech’s intended audiences. It should and could have also been directed at a U.S. audience and, even an Israeli audience. But since most people never saw the speech itself, they had to rely on the print and electronic media’s reporting of the speech to hear about it and to have its meaning brought home to them.

I know that the Syrians want to impact U.S. public opinion and have legitimate Arab grievances understood in the West. The Foreign Minister focused on this in his remarks. He emphasized, for example, the concern that for too long the Washington media had misrepresented Syrian views and ignored the suffering of the Syrian people.

What might have been helpful in this case would have been either some advance preparations or some post speech “spin.” If, for example, supportive Arab Americans and Arab journalists or even Embassy spokespersons had been give some notice of the fact that the Foreign Minister would make a statement breaking new ground; if they had been given the text immediately after it had been delivered; or if, after the negative reactions to it had surfaced, there had been some effort to redirect the discussion to the more positive contributions of the remarks–the next day’s coverage could have been quite different.

As it was, those who understood how interesting the speech was, did not know about its content until it was too late to help.

Stories like this should never be left to the spontaneous interpretation of the press. They need to be nurtured and helped. Working with the press to correct decades old grievances requires a constant effort. The old maxim I learned as a teacher applies here. When I was beginning as a college lecturer, an older professor told me that if I wanted to be understood without misinterpretation I should “Tell them what you are going to say. Say it. And then tell them what you’ve said.” This is even more relevant in politics.

The Syrians will be returning on January 3, with the Lebanese possibly joining the talks, it appears, shortly there after. The Palestinians will also be coming to the United States in mid-January for U.S.-Palestinian bilateral discussions. All of the parties should, in addition to preparing their positions and their maps and their strategies for negotiations, also be preparing their press strategy to influence the U.S. public understanding of the legitimate concerns that will be presented in the talks.

There will be significant opportunities to reach both the United States and Israeli public opinion throughout the next several weeks. Either Arabs will take advantage of these openings and seek to define their grievances and goals or, others will define them.

It would be unfortunate if this opportunity were lost or wasted.

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