Where peace talks gave delegates the media opportunity of a lifetime to talk to the rest of the world

AT a peace conference where issues of substance were kept off the agenda, image became the name of the game.In the stately conference room in Madrid's Royal Palace, or in the hangar-like press center, Arab and Israeli delegates fought a battle of the sound bite, their every utterance filmed, taped, and noted down by the 4,600 journalists at the meeting. For all sides at the opening talks, Madrid offered a stage lit by the glare of international attention. Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians seized the chance to tell their truth to the world in their words, using the massed media to enlist support among their listeners. Sometimes the television arc lamps only heated old passions. Sometimes their light illuminated subtleties of the Middle East conflict. But however much each party tried to distort another's positions, they all had the chance to refine their own messages, and transmit them to their chosen audiences. Speakers at the opening sessions were addressing not only the delegations grouped around the conference table, but their people at home, the people in enemy countries, and the world at large. Thus Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's firm claim to the occupied territories, which pleased his right-wing constituency at home. Thus Palestinian delegation leader Haider Abdel-Shafi's promise to those Palestinians, who he said "harbor serious doubts and skepticism about this process," that "the load is heavy and the task is great, but we shall be true." Arabs and Israelis also took the opportunity to speak directly to each other's public opinion. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, held an unprecedented press conference with Arab journalists, which he called "as important as all the things we are doing behind closed doors." Dr. Abdel-Shafi, meanwhile, said he wished "to directly address the Israeli people," calling on them to "break through the barriers of mistrust and manipulated fears. Let us look forward in magnanimity and hope." That approach, however, was not shared by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who raised howls of protest at his press conference when he refused to answer questions from Israeli reporters. As the world watched, Arabs and Israelis also reached out beyond their region, explaining the depth of their mutual resentment, and competing for international support. In his own eyes each delegate was a victim, his enemy the oppressor, and each claimed the underdog's right to sympathy. Mr. Shamir recalled the Nazis' slaughter of the Jews; Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez reminded listeners how Israel occupies part of his land; Abdel-Shafi spoke of "the dispossession and the dispersal of exile ... the brutality and repression of the occupation;" Mr. Sharaa lamented the "persecution, injustice, and discrimination inflicted on the Arabs." But beyond this affirmation of old self images, one delegation showed the world a new face: the Palestinians. Long caricatured as ruthless, unshaven terrorists, the Palestinians won recognition last week as normal human beings, represented in Madrid by Abdel-Shafi, a grave, courteous doctor whose demeanor rose on occasion to the statesmanlike, and by Hanan Ashrawi, a university lecturer in English literature who mixed determination with charm and wit. Ms. Ashrawi did not hide her pleasure at this bonus prize the Palestinians won at Madrid. "You have given us a fair hearing, you have given the Palestinian voice a platform," she told reporters. "Thank you for relaying our narrative to the world."

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