ANALYSIS: Israel/Palestine conflict in comms - As the violence in the Middle-East continues to escalate, PR operations on both sides are striving to argue their case in the media, says Adam Hill

It is grotesque to talk about a PR battle being fought as real lives are lost in Palestinian and Israeli cities. But when black is white and white is black depending on which side you talk to, there are clearly major comms efforts in operation.

It is now six months since the British Israel Communications Centre (BICOM) relaunched. Originally set up 18 months ago to counter perceived anti-Israeli messages in the media, last October it hired consultant Lee Petar as director of comms under former BBC journalist and BICOM director Mark Berg. They shared a simple brief: to argue Israel's case.

For both sides, the need to be understood publicly is paramount, because the shape of any final settlement will depend on the attitudes of a range of western leaders, including prime minister Tony Blair, and US president George W Bush, whom Blair can influence.

But anyone expecting instant results from BICOM's early work will be disappointed. So reticent is BICOM about its progress on PR goals, that Petar would only say: 'We are here for the long-term, there are no easy fixes.'

The past six months have been spent building an infrastructure of research and rebuttal, issuing daily round-ups of stories and instigating a visitor programme. Apart from a planned website, the public face of BICOM seems to have been fairly limited.

The escalation of violence in the West Bank and Gaza during recent weeks has not helped the organisation in engendering pro-Israeli messages. TV images of tanks on streets, corpses unburied and children crying outside ruined homes tell a story - even though that story runs the risk of being distorted as it becomes condensed.

DJ Schneweiss, press attache at the Israeli embassy in London, admitted to PRWeek: 'Israel is losing ground in PR terms, in terms of understanding of the issues. There may be more practical PR things that could be done on the ground. People know the Israeli position, but not enough agree with it. We are dealing with a predisposition in the media that automatically identifies with the underdog. There is an orthodoxy that runs in journalism and it is difficult (for journalists) to go against the grain. People are blinded into thinking the pictures explain themselves. When people are willing to blame you for anything, it doesn't matter how brilliant your PR tactics are.'

Afif Safieh, the Palestian Authority's envoy in London, has a different view: 'This has nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority. It is reality.

And the reality unfolding on TV has been an eye-opener.'

It suits Schneweiss to present a picture of the Israeli information machine struggling to put forward the justness of the country's cause against overwhelming media ignorance and hostility.

And it suits Safieh to portray TV reports as the unvarnished truth. In this conflict, both sides have a profound need to be perceived as innocents - either being crushed by military power or helpless against a tide of terrorist violence.

It may be impossible to construct a meaningful PR operation to defend the current Israeli military incursions into Palestinian land, which continued throughout US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region last week and are still in effect as PRWeek goes to press.

Schneweiss is confident Israel has good spokespeople it regularly puts up. But mixed messages, such as Israeli confusion over the number of dead in the battle for/massacre of the West Bank town of Jenin - downgraded from 'hundreds' to 'hundreds injured and a hundred dead' hours later - have not done the Israeli comms efforts any favours.

Safieh and Schneweiss remain proactive in media relations even if they play down the impact of the tactics used. But both say their own people's suffering is being portrayed less in human terms than the other side's. Newspapers are routinely criticised, The Times and The Daily Telegraph seen as pro-Israel, with The Guardian and The Independent as broadly pro-Palestinian.

Safieh says: 'We have won the "battle of letters

in all papers, even those insensitive to our plight. But this has never been organised or choreographed as a PR campaign.'

He bemoans newspapers' alleged reluctance to take sold-in op ed pieces from members of the British Arab community: 'That has proven difficult.'

Chris Doyle, the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding senior PRO, agrees: 'You are hard-pressed to find a Palestinian who has written an opinion piece. There is still too much of third parties saying what Palestinians think. And Palestinians face the key problem of being short of spokespeople who speak decent English.'

Doyle says the biggest PR error of recent times was made by Palestinians in January 2001, when Arafat rejected the Camp David peace offer made by the then Israeli premier Ehud Barak.: 'They failed to get the message across of why the deal was not a solution.

Different spokesmen put out different messages. It was perceived as them turning down peace as a strategic option and opting for violence. The Palestinians really failed to position it right.'

PR remains important in this conflict, since winning support internationally will prove crucial to the shape of any ultimate settlement. Yet it is worth noting that, in the UK, neither Ariel Sharon nor Yasser Arafat is considered a potent PR asset.

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