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Disney Brokers a Mideast Peace of Sorts

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 1999; Page A02

The happiest place on Earth took on the eternal enmities of the Middle East yesterday. Disney won, of course.

For weeks leading up to today's opening of the Israeli pavilion at the Epcot Center theme park in Orlando, the very notion of a Disney version of Middle Eastern history has provoked heated rhetoric and threats of boycotts. The subject: an $8 million exhibit and an eight-minute thrill ride called "Journey to Jerusalem."

Arab nations and Arab Americans accused Disney of caving in to Jewish influence and promoting Jerusalem as Israel's capital--a thorny issue at the heart of the excruciating Middle East peace process. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy even took the issue to the United Nations, telling the General Assembly on Wednesday that threats of an Arab boycott have "no place here or anywhere else in the world." Zalman Shoval, Israel's ambassador to Washington, warned against Arab "political blackmail," which he called "just another word for terrorism." Worried Disney executives met repeatedly with both sides.

And then yesterday, when the exhibit was unveiled to reporters, the whole dispute seemed so, well, Mickey Mouse.

"Journey to Jerusalem" visits the key tourist sites in Jerusalem and acknowledges the presence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy City. The character of King David leads a filmed tour, beginning at Judaism's most sacred site: the Western Wall.

"This is the heart and soul of Jerusalem," David says. "It is here that stories of faith and belief are born." The narrative shifts to Jerusalem's significance to Christianity, then to Islam. In the classic Disney World formula, visitors then shuffle from the film theater into a flight simulator room, where a second movie glides swiftly through 3,000 years of Holy City history.

There go the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, the Via Dolorosa. Here's a Disneyfied version of the story of Abraham and Isaac, then a few words on the persecution of Jews throughout history.

There is but one overt reference to Jerusalem as a capital. An announcer says: "King David made Jerusalem the first capital of their [the Jews'] nation."

Both sides in the Middle East were quick to claim victory. The 22-nation Arab League backed away from a threatened boycott last week after Disney Chairman Michael Eisner assured the group that the exhibit "does not reference Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."

But Shoval continues to boast that the Disney display puts "the focus on Jerusalem," which "is indeed the capital of Israel."

Even before Arab officials could view the exhibit, Disney somehow managed to convince the Arab League, some Arab anti-discrimination groups and the billionaire Saudi prince who happens to be a major shareholder in Euro Disney that despite the presence of "Journey to Jerusalem" in the Israeli pavilion, Jerusalem is not being presented as Israel's capital.

Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said Disney won over Arab leaders by agreeing to make changes in the exhibit. "This was an act of provocation by Israel," he said. "They should not be playing out the most sensitive issue of the peace talks in an amusement park."

But the Israeli ambassador praised Disney for not caving in to "political blackmail."

Asked yesterday whether changes were made, Disney spokesman Bill Warren said, "Things are always changed." Asked to specify the changes, he said, "We never talk about the process of creating the magic of any of our rides or exhibits."

But there were clear signs of compromise at the pavilion. Three disclaimers inform visitors that they are getting the Israeli perspective, not Disney's. A sign greets visitors at the building's entrance, another is in the printed program, and a third notice comes at the start of the exhibit's opening movie. The announcer says, "This is the story of faith, hope and peace sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, and it is based on their perspective."

Warren said no such statements appear in any other Epcot pavilions.

In addition, an Israeli official told Agence France-Presse that one sentence referring to Jerusalem as Israel's capital was deleted from the film.

Some Arab groups have refrained from joining the chorus of "It's a Small World After All." American Moslems for Jerusalem, a 50,000-member coalition of eight Muslim American groups, has not backed off its call for a boycott of Disney movies, TV shows, stores and parks.

And Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he remains dissatisfied with the exhibit, which he considers a "gross misrepresentation" of history. Israel is "projecting other people's culture and history, holding their land and their population at gunpoint, and holding Disney hostage in the process."

Israel has declared all of Jerusalem as its eternal capital since annexing mostly Arab East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel is one of 24 countries represented in Millennium Village, a new, temporary section of Epcot. Disney is using the turn of the century to promote Epcot, the company's weakest-performing park. Israel's government put up $1.8 million of the pavilion's cost--about a quarter of the total.

Special correspondent Fawn Germer in Orlando and staff writer Will Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.


© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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