Arafat's Dilemma is one of Perception
Sept. 13, 1996
By Ray Hanania
There is an old saying in Public Relations: You can't sell the reality unless you are willing to live the perception.
Much like a desert oasis, success and failure sometimes have little to do with reality.
Such is the problem that confronts Palestinian President Yasir Arafat as he struggles to lead his people to statehood, for the first time in the history of the human race.
Arafat is learning that the ball game of politics and negotiations are played by a handbook drafted, edited and translated by the Americans with heavy revisions by the Israeli baseball league.
Israel plays by those rules, as do most other nations who have overcome obstacles to establish themselves as world leaders and powers.
But not the Arab World, which continues to place its dreams against the failed track record of its recent history.
The Arab World stumbled out of an era of European colonialism seeking freedom and independence, only to discover that its own leaders had replaced the colonialists with a colonialism of their own.
Such are the Arab World parents of the Palestinian people, autocrats, dictators, strongmen, monarchs and despots.
From this unlikely recipe, Arafat is expected to weave a sweater of freedom, liberty and national independence? Arafat cannot achieve his goals by playing politics the "old-fashion" Arab way.
There can be no Palestinian State to emerge from the dismal trail of empty rhetoric and hyperbole that characterizes his speeches, policies and the lessons he learned from his Arab World teachers.
Instead, Arafat has to learn to break away from Middle East failure, and focus on the successful techniques that resulted in the founding of Israel, and other Western nations.
Most of all, Arafat and the so-called Palestinian National Authority, desperately need a lesson in public relations.
Arafat has failed by not properly defining his goal of "an independent Palestinian State."
The world still views this objective as the natural birth of the Palestinian Revolution, which is remembered more for the acts of terrorism and bravado than it is for its justification.
When Arafat confronts Israel on issues that he should win, he finds himself losing the battle because Israelis better understand the issues of public media manipulation. They do a better job of "framing" their message to the world masses. (Framing is a term that has a lot to do with preparing a portrait but nothing to do with hanging it on the wall.)
For example, the latest fight between Arafat and Netanyahu, while intensely complex to negotiators, is at best a public relations battle for the rest of us: Netanyahu is turning away from the peace process while Arafat begs for it hat in hand.
Instead of portraying himself as the champion of freedom, Arafat appears as a weak leader, and thereby gives the public audience the room to become skeptical. They don't lend credence to his charges that Netanyahu is anti-peace.
A strong public relations campaign would cast Netanyahu as an anti-peace, extremist leader who could plunge the Middle East and the world into the final Armageddon.
Netanyahu sings the public relations chorus better than Arafat for several reasons: he's a seasoned ball player who understands that the media view begins and ends in a New York studio; he has greater flexibility of travel; and, he strikes a more appealing image with his chiseled profile and smooth English.
Arafat, on the other hand, is still wearing those military khakis causing many Americans to wonder if he even has them washed. Arafat is not living his role.
In order to be a leader, you must act like a leader. And, just as important, you must also live like a leader.
His poverty image as a "revolutionary of the people" may go over well in the Gaza Strip, but it so injures his cause elsewhere in the world you have to wonder if he and his aides even understand the significance of "image."
In politics, at the local or the international level, you have to "look" like a winner to "be" a winner. Perception is reality.
Arafat can change how the public perceives himself and his cause.
It's not difficult.
But he has to make a real effort to push aside many of his high profile advisers, and replace them with people who understand what needs to be done.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning journalist and author. His book, "I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America" will be published this month. His columns are archived at http://www.hanania.com)