Frame Game

Yessir, Yasser

Two weeks ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the case for a military response to attacks by Palestinian terrorists, “Frame Game” assessed the strategy behind Sharon’s rhetoric. This week, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat condemned the Israeli assault and urged Palestinian terrorists not to attack Israel again. Let’s examine how Arafat’s speech countered Sharon’s.

Sharon, like President Bush, broadened his international appeal by framing his campaign in moral rather than ethnic or national terms. He distinguished terrorists and Arafat’s Palestinian Authority from the good “Palestinian people.” In his speech two days ago, Arafat replied in kind. He denounced “the government of Ariel Sharon” but emphasized that the Palestinian struggle wasn’t against “Israel’s existence.” Arafat depicted a conflict between peace and war, with good Israelis and Palestinians in the former camp and Sharon in the latter. “We have worked together with the forces of peace” in Israel toward “peace for their children and for our children,” said Arafat.

Sharon framed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against the background of Sept. 11, pairing Israel with the United States and Arafat with Osama Bin Laden. Arafat rejected this pairing and urged his people not to play into Sharon’s hands. He reminded them that the Palestinian cause required foreign support, which in turn required “international legitimacy.” He implored them “to understand the developments of the international situation, especially after the terror attacks in New York and Washington on the 11th of September, and the influence those attacks have on our cause.” He warned them that Sharon’s game was to “delegitimize our struggle” by having all Palestinian resistance “branded as terror.” He told them that Bush’s support for Palestinian independence could help them and that they should maintain “friendships” with “peoples of the world.” To Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat’s message was: The world’s only superpower has declared war on terrorists. Don’t put us on the losing side.

Bush framed the U.S. war against Bin Laden as a campaign for democracy, tolerance, and coexistence. Sharon portrayed Israel as the exemplar of these values in the Middle East. Arafat sought to claim them for his side. He stressed “our preparedness to hold democratic elections … the minute the appropriate circumstances … are available.” He contrasted Sharon’s policy of “tanks and planes” with the Palestinian Authority policy of “dialogue.” Reciprocating Bush’s kind, inclusive references to American Muslims, Arafat laced his speech with kind, inclusive references to Palestinian Christians. He even called Palestine “the cradle of activity of Jesus Christ.”

The most important aspect of Arafat’s speech was his recasting of Sharon’s objectives. Arafat told his countrymen that while Sharon’s ultimate purpose was to occupy their land, Sharon’s method of doing so was to discredit and destroy the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, any Palestinian who attacked Israel despite the Palestinian Authority’s pledge of peace—thereby discrediting the authority and helping Sharon justify war—was aiding the enemy. “We will not allow anybody to destabilize our national scheme,” Arafat told his people. “This sophisticated conflict that we are living does not allow … any shaking of the credibility of the authority. … We will stop all these [terrorists] who have no other mission but to give excuses to further Israeli attacks.”

Words alone won’t get Arafat out of his predicament. Already, Palestinian terrorists have defied Arafat’s order to stop, and Sharon has dismissed it as unserious. But if Arafat manages to keep the Palestinian public on his side while cracking down on terrorists enough to maintain his credibility abroad, this speech will be a big reason why.