On the Plane

Palestinian Authority Enjoys New Media Center

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan. 14 -- The Palestinian Authority may be on the verge of collapse, driven by tensions between Hamas, the radical Islamic group that controls the legislature, and the Fatah party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The prospects for peace may appear daunting. But the impact of American diplomacy is felt in at least one significant way here at Abbas's headquarters.

The gleaming new media center.

Previously, whenever Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Abbas, the ensuing news conference would be held in a dark and dank room, which had poor lighting, mediocre sound and yellowing walls. Rice and Abbas would speak in front of picture of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites, and a photo of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The visual images were never great from the American perspective.

So in the summer of 2005, Rice dispatched one of her most trusted aides, then-senior adviser Jim Wilkinson, to come to the Palestinian territories with more than $1.2 million in U.S. aid money. His task: create modern facilities in both Ramallah and Gaza. The Americans assumed that Abbas's Fatah party would win legislature elections in January 2006, and the facilities were to give his administration the trappings of a modern state. Abbas, for instance, would be able to give speeches to the Palestinian people with the new equipment, presumably outlining his progress in negotiating peace with the Israelis.

Alas, Hamas unexpectedly won the elections, freezing the peace process. Wilkinson eventually moved to the Treasury Department to become chief of staff. But his facilities still exist.

The walls have been painted white. Arafat's portrait and the photo of the Dome of the Rock -- a symbol of the Palestinian desire to make Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestine -- is now discreetly hidden behind a blue curtain. Professional television lighting had been installed. The two officials held their news conference on a raised platform in front of a blue backdrop with U.S. and Palestinian flags.

Palestinian reporters, who used to write their stories on steps outside, now have their own filing center, complete with individual cubicles and a wireless Internet zone.

The facility is still dank and cold, however. Reporters tried to warm themselves in the sun as they waited for Abbas and Rice to emerge from more than two hours of talks. But with unaccustomed efficiency, the Palestinian security services hustled us into the press-briefing room a full 50 minutes before the news conference.

In fact, covering the secretary usually means a lot of waiting. The old joke is that no press aide ever got fired for getting the reporters early to an event earlier. We were put in vans to accompany Rice to Ramallah at 8:30, but she did not emerge for another hour.

Then we had to take a half hour drive to Ramallah, under unusually tight security. A security agent briefed reporters in each bulletproof van to remain inside if we came under fire. "If there is contact, stay in the vehicle," he ordered.

Inside Abbas's compound, the security was also unusually tight. Diplomatic security personnel became nervous when reporters wandered 100 steps from the briefing room to look at the progress being made on Arafat's mausoleum, a massive structure that will stand over flowing water next to a small mosque and minaret. Palestinian officials say it will cost $1.5 million, funded by Palestinian donations, but fundraising has been hurt by the Palestinian financial crisis.

All told, reporters spent almost five hours waiting or traveling back and forth from Jerusalem for a news conference (transcript) that lasted about 15 minutes.

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  January 14, 2007; 3:24 PM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, January 2007
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