Can a 15,000 mile round trip be remembered for a single word? It probably will be in regard to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, the capital of the P.A. In her two days in the region, the secretary of state, who otherwise talked in the usual platitudes, signaled the changed American attitude toward the P.A. since the death of Yasser Arafat by referring repeatedly to Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas or “Abu-Mazen,” as “President Abbas.” Yet American diplomats never knew Arafat himself as anything but “Chairman Arafat,” and Abbas has taken over Arafat’s position. Whence the promotion?
It all goes back to the 1993 and 1995 Oslo agreements, known as Oslo I and Oslo II. The first of these was signed between the State of Israel, represented by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, represented by Arafat, who since 1969 officially had been the PLO’s chairman: ra’is el-jalseh in Arabic — literally, “the head of the meeting.” The word ra’is (pronounced “rah-EES”), from ras, which means “head” in an anatomical sense and is a close cognate of Hebrew rosh (as in Rosh Hashanah, the first or “head day” of the year), is used in many different combinations in Arabic. Thus, we have ra’is el-wuzara, a head or prime minister; ra’is el-baladiyya, the head or mayor of a municipality; ra’is el-dowla, the head or president of a country, and so on. Standing by itself, ra’is can also mean various things, from president to foreman of a work gang. Egypt’s President Mubarak, for example, is El-Ra’is Mubarak in Arabic.
When Oslo II was signed in 1995, however, it was no longer between Israel and the PLO but between Israel and the P.A. — of which Arafat, wanting to be considered a head of state, demanded to be called “president.” Israel, which was against the P.A.’s being recognized as a state, insisted that he continue to be known as its chairman. In the end, a diplomatic solution was found. Arafat was called, in the English protocol of the agreement, Chairman Arafat; in the Hebrew yoshev-rosh, which means chairman, too; and in the Arabic el-ra’is, which could mean anything one wanted and which the Palestinians took to mean — and translated into other languages as — “president.”
Just what Arafat was called in subsequent years depended on who was doing the calling and on what the caller’s attitude toward him was. American administrations stuck scrupulously to “Chairman Arafat,” while European leaders like French President Jacques Chirac often spoke of “President Arafat.” Newspapers and television stations tended to use one or another title according to their political leanings, and often to waffle by using neither, substituting such circumlocutions as “Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat” or “Palestinian head Yasser Arafat.”
Now that Condoleezza Rice has crowned Abu-Mazen “President Abbas,” thereby also upgrading the status of the P.A. in Washington’s scheme of things, one can assume that the circumlocutions will be dropped. Meanwhile, only Israel continues to refer to Abbas officially as the P.A.’s “chairman” — and this is likely to be temporary.
“Diplomatic ambiguity” is a term often used to describe language that is mutually understood to mean different things to different sides in a dispute. (Thus it is not the same as irony, which might be ambiguous in the hope of being misunderstood, as in Benjamin’s Disraeli’s classic reply to the sender of an unsolicited manuscript: “Many thanks, I shall lose no time in reading it.”) Yasser Arafat’s title is not the only case of diplomatically ambiguous language that Israel has been associated with prominently. An even more controversial example is the discrepancy between the differing versions of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after the 1967 War, which called on Israel to withdraw, in French, des territories occupés (interpretable as either “from [some of] the occupied territories” or “from [all of] the occupied territories”), and in English, merely from “occupied territories.” Yet another instance has been Israel’s repeated declaration since the late 1960s that it would not be “the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” Does ‘introduce” mean “make” or “use”? For a nuclear power that wished neither to lie nor admit the truth, this was a neat way of refraining from both.
Diplomatic ambiguity is hardly a modern invention. Indeed, the first recorded reference to it in history comes from the ancient Greeks. In Aristotle’s long essay “On the Constitution of Athens,” a discussion of the code of law given that city by its ruler, Solon, in the early sixth century B.C.E., the Greek philosopher writes that Solon’s laws “were not drawn up in simple and explicit terms” and adds: “Some persons in fact believe that Solon deliberately made the laws indefinite, in order that the final decision might be in the hands of the people.” “Pretend to agree now and fight later” is what diplomatic ambiguity has always been about.
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