On the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and only a few hours after the terrorist attack on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, a hand waved a document in Arabic that filled the entire television screen. The translation of the document was - roughly - that Arafat condemned terrorist attacks against civilians, and especially the latest one in Jerusalem.
The document included additional declarations and statements, some of which were political in nature, and some humanitarian; however, what was of almost heavenly significance in the eyes of Israeli television viewers was not so much the content, but the fact that the document was in Arabic.
Since the launching of the recent and massive wave of terrorist incidents, Arafat has been urged not only to make a supreme effort in thwarting such attacks, apprehending suspected terrorists and extraditing them to Israel, but also to denounce terror attacks and clearly declare his intentions in Arabic - the idea being that unless he makes such a declaration in Arabic, none of his statements is worth a plug nickel.
In any event, no one really believes a word that Arafat says - whether he speaks in Arabic, Hebrew or Hungarian. However, unlike other world leaders, whose condemnations, regardless of the language, are acceptable, Arafat must submit his gift-offering in his native tongue. The assumption behind this demand is that Arafat speaks in two tongues: He says one thing in English (with the words intended for Western ears) and something quite different in Arabic (with the words addressed to his faithful followers).
Thus, according to this logic, he must say only one thing and in only one language - namely, the language understood by the Arab public; and only if he does so will Israel believe that he is saying what he really believes. On the other hand, since even what Arafat says in Arabic has no credibility, he might as well speak his peace in sign language or in Morse code.
His words will be believed on only one condition: We the commentators must affirm that he has said what he is supposed to say.
Most Israelis were unable to read the Arabic of the statement of condemnation that appeared on their television screens, nor were they able to understand the words of condemnation that were uttered in Arabic. Even the majority of Israelis who know Arabic would find it difficult to identify the linguistic and cultural contexts of the language used by Arafat, or to put themselves in the place of the members of the Palestinian public and determine with any degree of certainty that Arafat's statements scored direct hits, moved the hearts and souls of Palestinians and persuaded them that he really meant what he had said.
In fact, the Palestinian public and its reaction to Arafat's language are utterly irrelevant - the reason being that we do not care whether he convinces the Palestinian public or not; we want him to convince us; and we have already decided that the only language in which he can convince us is Arabic.
Unless Israeli commentators stamp Arafat's statements with their seals of approval, Palestinians can wail or beat their breasts in penitence until doomsday. This is how the Arabic language works its magic spell: The credibility of the statement is vested in the translators and commentators, rather than in the person who has made it.
A few days ago, an acquaintance told me that he considered Arafat's condemnation sincere and that perhaps Israel now had a partner for dialogue. "What particular statement in Arafat's declaration gave you this impression?" I asked. And his reply: "This is the impression I got from Channel One's commentator, whose assessments I value highly."
Lurking around the corner, however, is a danger that could threaten even the official linguistic commentators. From now on, texts in Arabic must be approved by Middle Eastern scholar Colin Powell, rather than by the linguistic commentators. Before a declaration of condemnation was worded in Arabic phrases judged suitable in the eyes of the secretary of state, the very idea of his meeting with Arafat was in jeopardy. Holding up the declaration of condemnation in Arabic in front of a television camera worked its magic, just like a shining crystal in the hands of a hypnotist.
A suitable response can now be found to the general complaint of the Arabs that the U.S. administration has a pro-Israeli bias: At least Arabic has now become the holy tongue of diplomacy. Israel's indices of persuasion have now passed into the hands of the American administration, which will now determine not only whether the content of a statement is acceptable, but also whether the language in which it is couched is correct.
Perhaps this linguistic hurdle can be dispensed with. Israelis feel their hearts skip a beat when they hear a foreign leader recite - even in a heavy and clumsy accent - two consecutive words in Hebrew, like shana tova (Happy New Year) or Shalom, haver (Goodbye, my friend). In light of this fact, perhaps Arafat should be urged to do the same. After all, we are the ones he should be addressing.
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