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Behind the Headlines: Israelis Seek to Stem Damage As Image of Peacemaker Fades

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Less than a month ago, Israel’s efforts to seek peace had boosted the Jewish state to unprecedented heights in the court of world opinion.

But this week the luster was fading fast, as bloody clashes between Jews and Arabs continued to rock the region.

In response, Israeli officials and some Jewish groups were working feverishly to minimize the harm to the country’s international image.

The offensive appeared to be three-pronged: defuse criticism on the diplomatic front, inform American rabbis about the on-the-ground situation so they could fill in their congregants at Yom Kippur services next week and contact the media that is so influential in making first and lasting impressions on the public.

At the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, an effort to push through a statement critical of Israel failed when it became apparent that the United States, a permanent member of the council, would not go along with the document, according to Israeli diplomatic sources.

The text, which was debated at a special session, would have condemned the violence against Palestinian civilians without mentioning Israel explicitly.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States acknowledged that the broadcast of dramatic footage of the rioting has not helped Israel’s position in the international arena.

“TV pictures are not assisting us in public opinion,” David Ivry told JTA, adding that the Jewish state is acting in self-defense. “Violence is against our interest.”

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement in the Jewish community about what spin should be put on the events in the Holy Land.

In a conference call Monday between Israeli officials and American Jewish organizational leaders, one topic focused on shifting blame from Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon — for sparking the conflagration with his visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last week — to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for not acting to extinguish it.

“There’s a polemical war going on here,” one dovish participant on the call told JTA, “and in the rules of a polemical war, if you acknowledge your warts, you weaken your case.”

By the end of the call, said the source, who asked not to be identified, “it was clear that not everybody agreed with the proposal that all blame should be laid at Arafat’s feet.”

Still, many Jewish organizations were rallying to Israel’s defense. In a barrage of faxes sent out early this week, several Jewish groups blamed Arafat for the violence and called on him to restore stability to the region.

To some, the media coverage echoes coverage of the Palestinian uprising that dominated news coverage from the area in the late 1980s and early 1990s: simplistic portrayals of armed Israeli soldiers versus stone-throwing Palestinian youth.

“Everybody loves the blood and guts show on the 6 o’clock news,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“But the media has not given an even-handed account. The fact that this violence is clearly orchestrated and Arafat has done nothing to stop it is lost in the message. They present the defenseless Palestinian, but you rarely hear about the Palestinian police using live ammunition and shooting at Israelis.”

Responding to international criticism that Israelis have used excessive force, Hoenlein said, “Could there be cases of excessive force? Certainly, but it’s very easy to judge from over here what soldiers should do when they are under fire.”

An Israel diplomat disagreed that a media bias is inherent. But the diplomat, who asked that he not be identified, conceded that “there is a tendency to show Israelis without a human face.”

In an effort to correct the perceived imbalance, Israeli officials are suggesting a number of human-interest features for the Western media to report.

Not only do they focus on Israeli casualties, both military and civilian, but on examples of Israeli and Palestinian cooperation that are occurring in medical and rescue units.

Still, the media’s graphic images not only shape world opinion, but have left many ordinary Jews confused and uncertain how to react, said Thomas Smerling, director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington Policy Center, a group that strongly advocates the peace process.

Those Jews opposed to concessions are relieved to see the peace process derailed, at least temporarily, said Smerling. “People are not sure what to do. On one hand, they don’t want to see Israel’s image dragged through the mud. On the other hand, they themselves are very pained by what they see on TV.”

“There’s a general sense of dismay. Since hopes have run so high for an end to the conflict, to see it slip back to street violence is dismaying. But those Jews professionally involved with the peace process understand that this is part of a longer-term cycle. The peace process has proven resilient.”

To soothe anxiety and keep the Jewish community better informed, organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Conference of Presidents are preparing “talking points” for rabbis and community leaders.

“There’s a battle for public opinion as to who’s responsible for the violence,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Our job is to provide them with a source of information other than the media and what is being promulgated by Arab-American organizations. We’re encouraging them to proactively reach out to the media and non-Jewish influentials to help them understand Israel’s perspective and our perspective of what is taking place.”

Smerling admitted it will be a challenge.

“Unfortunately, what people remember are images more than the analysis. And the image that is unfortunately burned into everybody’s retina is that of the 12- year-old boy being shot and dying in his father’s arms,” he said, referring to the widely televised incident in which a Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli gunfire.

Jewish activists say it is unclear whether the bloodshed will do deep or lasting damage to Israel’s image.

But at least one Israeli official was optimistic that the reservoir of good will and political capital built up by Prime Minister Ehud Barak is large enough not to unravel overnight.

“It’s clear this sort of event erodes some of the good will we’ve gained,” said Yehuda Ya’akov, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York.

“But I think we have turned the corner, and that international and public support is a fixture because of Israel’s sincerity about seeking peace.”

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