JERUSALEM — The decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now most often fought as a war of words. Rhetorical stones are almost always being lobbed, but one key to understanding the strife is knowing which verbal stones signal visceral disagreement and which ones simply show mild protest.
With tensions rising again, all eyes are on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He has responded angrily to recent Israeli moves, saying: "There is a real crisis because there is a clear breaching to what had been agreed upon."
But compare this with the much-stronger words Mr. Arafat used last fall, when Israel opened an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem near a Muslim holy site: The opening signaled Israel was "declaring a state of war against the Palestinian people," he said during the last week of August.
In using the words "by all means necessary," he was soon calling for marches and strikes and told all Palestinians to defy Israeli roadblocks to reach Jerusalem for "protest prayers." In the violence that followed, 80 people were killed.
In contrast, his more recent rhetoric is relatively calm. When Israel announced it would build 6,500 apartments on a hilltop in East Jerusalem - the area Palestinians hope to make the capital of their independent state - Arafat's response was clear, but not shrill. He says the plan is a breach of the agreements and that he would bring his complaint to the court of world opinion. But while in Washington, Arafat called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his "peace partner" and described as a "unique challenge" Israel's decision to build in East Jerusalem.
"We have no other choice but to keep on with the peace process," Arafat said at a news conference.
But all the rhetoric has ratcheted up several notches in the last 10 days, after Israel announced earlier this week it would pull out of 9 percent of the West Bank - not the 30 percent Palestinians hoped for. It was then that Arafat began describing the situation as a "real crisis." But thus far he has refrained from invoking the rhetoric of last fall.
Arafat's deputies, however, have been more strident, illustrating another key to understanding Mideast rhetoric: While the tone of words is important, so is the position of the person saying them.
For instance, on March 9, Arafat deputy and Palestinian Authority Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel-Rahman said that in protesting the Israeli decision, "All means should be considered.... All Palestinians should be invited to confront settlements." It was a clear echo of Arafat's words last fall.
But Arafat himself hasn't used these words, and Israeli security officials now estimate that Arafat wants to exhaust peaceful protest and diplomatic pressure before asking Palestinians to return to force.
Arafat watchdogs say he has sent word to his police and security troops to keep protests calm. In the coming days, the political weather vane to watch will be whether Arafat's rhetoric verges on incitement to revolt, or whether it is more tempered.
That worries Israelis, because Arafat may not have nearly so much command over the intensity of Palestinian reaction as his ability to spark it. "Arafat can turn on the flame and he can turn it off," one of Israel's top military men warned during last fall's gun battles, "but he can't control the height of the flame."