Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Safire Synonym

I've written about the word used by Olmert to describe a backwards movement by Israel and now William Safire has, too:-

The painful problem of finding a synonym for withdrawal re-emerged this year. Palestinians voted in Hamas, an organization judged by the United States to support terror attacks, and one that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. The government of Israel, having successfully withdrawn — the preferred word was resettled — 8,000 Israelis from settlements among about a million Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip, was faced with the need for a descriptive name for a plan to redraw its boundaries without a Palestinian negotiating partner. The newly elected prime minister, Ehud Olmert, proposes to move dozens of West Bank villages built by some 90,000 Israelis into three main blocs that can be made secure behind the antiterrorist fence now under construction.

What to call the plan that would not be associated with "retreat" or "abandonment" but that would connote the consolidation of the Israeli populace into one area? The Hebrew word that Olmert chose during his election campaign late last year was hitkansut, which means "coming together." That word is an apt and sensitive choice in Hebrew: its root is kns, meaning "to gather in one place," and it shares a root with Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

But that was only half the battle. The word hitkansut (unlike the Hebrew-based maven or brouhaha) is not readily adopted into English; its sound could invite derision as a combination of hit-and-run and cloak-and-suit. The challenge: What word in English connotes withdrawal without weakness, and sensible rearrangement without imperious finality, that would gain international support?

Convergence was the first translation floated out: all the pioneering settlers would converge, with Israelis now fencing off suicidal intruders. But that word struck Israeli commentators as vaguely geometric and requiring further explanation. Some American old-timers recalled convergence as the word used by extreme d├ętenteniks in the 1960's to mean that the communist and capitalist ideologies would, in some happy future, meet in the middle.

"Goodbye 'Convergence' Hello 'Consolidation"' was the headline in The Jerusalem Post, privy to the "semantic struggle." But consolidation struck some as all too industrial, and other entries like retrenchment and disengagement were military terms too close to McClellan's retrograde movement. The editor David Horovitz dismissed the synonyms ingathering and rebordering as "not actually words at all."

Under a Washington Times headline, "Olmert Asks for a Word With Bush: Aides Settle on 'Realignment,"' Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv about preparations for a White House meeting that took place last month: "After weeks of discussing and polling, Mr. Olmert and his aides have settled on that word to describe his ambitious withdrawal plan." Though one Israeli muttered that "realignment sounds like work on your car," another held that it was a better translation of what Olmert was trying to accomplish: "Realignment speaks to shifting the lines."

By adjusting the line of separation without seeking to establish a formal border, Israel's purpose is to minimize friction while retaining its historic claim to the land in dispute. The chosen translation of hitkansut signals neither retreat nor annexation but is a bid to gain international support for a secure dividing line now, without closing the door to negotiation someday with a neighbor no longer dedicated to its destruction. Realignment was well received in the White House; sometimes "diplolingo" works.

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