Embattled Perceptions

Along with the rumbling of tanks and the blast of suicide bombs, another kind of battle grips the Middle East: a contest to shape and control perceptions.

One front in that battle is Israel's determination to portray its assault on Palestinian cities in the West Bank as a carefully targeted military operation – versus an onslaught that will cause extensive civilian suffering.

That demands some management of the news, and Israel's barring of journalists from Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat is under siege, is a big step in that direction.

With two foreign journalists wounded over the weekend, the dangers of covering this war are obvious (see story, page 7). But the Israeli government would be wiser to allow reporters to do their job, even if that means stories that contradict the official line.

On another perceptions front, many Palestinians try to cultivate a heroic image for the suicide bombers terrorizing Israel. Mr. Arafat bolsters that line when he declares his own readiness to become a "martyr."

But this is a hard perception to swallow. Just ask delegates to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting in Malaysia. They're gathering to take a united Muslim stand against terrorism, but the question of condemning suicide bombers as well as Israeli "state terrorism" reveals rifts in the group. As clearer heads in the conference realize, the condemnation has to include the full range of terror.

These battling perceptions shape responses to the Mideast crisis. Isn't Israel simply doing what it must to stamp out terrorism? Aren't suicide bombers just a terrible manifestation of frustration with Israeli occupation?

Americans are the primary target of Mideast perception-shapers because the US plays a powerful role. Even the latest peace plan, one from Saudi Arabia, was given first to a US journalist. The US must be careful in discerning spin from fact, and see a future past any smokescreens.

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