Change in Atmosphere at Peace Talks Extends to Treatment of Journalists

The new tone of openness and cordiality at the Arab-Israeli peace talks here has spilled over into the treatment of Middle Eastern reporters chronicling them.

For the first time, the Israelis have been translating and distributing all press materials in Arabic, including a bright blue booklet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s picture on the front and his inaugural speech inside.

They also hosted a first-ever background briefing for the press in Arabic.

And that is not the only break with precedent.

On Friday, the Palestinian delegation held a briefing for the first time exclusively for the Israeli press. Most notably, it was conducted by spokeswoman Hanan, Ashrawi and Nabil Sha’ath, political adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

In order to interview Sha’ath, who is based in the organization’s Tunis headquarters, Israeli journalists until now have had to flout the Israeli ban on contact with representatives of terrorist organizations.

That has meant "playing games" such as having other newsmakers present. It also has meant risking that the interview would not be used, especially by Israel’s government-controlled electronic media.

But only a week or two after the new Labor-led government announced it would soon ease the ban, Israeli reporters interviewed Sha’ath over coffee and cigarettes in a relaxed and candid atmosphere at the Grand Hotel here, in full view of an Israeli television camera.

SYRIANS ARE NOW COOPERATIVE

Perhaps the biggest change, though, is the way the Syrian delegation is treating the Israeli news media.

In previous rounds of the peace talks, the Syrians barred Israeli journalists from their briefings and brushed off questions from those who managed to slip in. This time, the delegation is granting interviews to any Israelis who ask, the Israelis say.

And Israel is going out of its way to assist Arab journalists. Israeli officials say their Arab outreach reflects the recognition that sending a message of good will to the Arab world via the press could help lay a stronger foundation for the peace process.

As evidence of their seriousness, they have brought to the United States a liaison to the Arabic press who is an Egyptian-born Israeli working in Arabic programming for Israel Television.

"Here we are engaged in peacemaking in the Arab world, and we have no way of reaching out a hand, people to people," said Ruth Yaron, spokeswoman at Israel’s Embassy here.

"Through the Arabs’ own trusted journalists, (perhaps) we can engage the people on the streets" in Arab countries to see that "Israelis are not two-horned creatures and really want peace," she said.

Yaron said the time was "ripe" and "we decided to test the waters" by holding the Arabic briefing, which she said was a big success.

"We had real dialogue. Not all the questions were easy, but it was a very good atmosphere," she said.

The response to some of the changes in the overall atmosphere appears cautious.

"I report there is a different tone but I also report that it doesn’t mean anything," since there has been "no progress yet on the real issues," said Maher Shalabi, a Palestinian reporter based in Jerusalem whose reports for the Middle East Broadcasting Center are transmitted throughout the Arab world.

"It’s a beginning, but the people on the ground will decide if they feel there is a change," he said. "If the people are not happy, the peace process won’t continue."

SYRIANS DRINK ISRAELI COFFEE

At a certain point in the process, echoed one Israeli official, all of the Arab leaders will have to turn to their own people to ratify the peace agreement. Israel’s strategy therefore is to reach the people directly through the Arab media.

Muhammad Shtayyeh, an official with the Palestinian delegation, denied that the Israeli press briefing it hosted was a change in policy. "The Israelis never asked us before for a briefing as a group," he said.

But Ori Nir, Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, was one of several Israeli reporters present who disagreed that there was nothing new.

He said it was novel that the Palestinians made the effort to deal exclusively with the Israeli press and that there was direct participation by a representative of the PLO.

Drora Perl, a reporter for the Israeli daily Davar, said the tone of the meeting reflected the Palestinians’ recognition that "a change in atmosphere is a prerequisite for making progress, that they need good will."

Nir of Ha’aretz said that easy access to Palestinians in Jerusalem has led to relations with the Israeli press that are comfortable and cordial. He stressed that the real change has been with the Syrians.

Perl of Davar said the change in the Syrians’ tone was in part a sign of their responsiveness to the new head of the Israeli team negotiating with the Syrians, Itamar Rabinovich. They perceive Rabinovich, a scholar on the Middle East, to be more committed to making progress than his Likud predecessor, Yossi Ben-Aharon.

But she said the Syrians also were probably aware that continuing to "exclude Jews" from the briefings in Washington "would no longer be swallowed" politically.

But more important than the way they treat the Israeli press, said another Israeli journalist, is the way the Syrians are treating the Israeli delegation.

In previous rounds, the Syrian delegation refused to take its coffee breaks in the same room as the Israelis. But last week, said the reporter, the Syrians sat with the Israelis and drank coffee the Israelis had brought from home and brewed at the table.

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