June 15, 2003



What's in a word? The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, learned that in the Middle East, a word can explode like a bomb.

''The thinking and the ideas that it is possible to continue holding [people] under occupation -- one may not like the word,'' he said on May 26, showing that he was aware of the furor his use of it would create, ''but what is happening here, is occupation. To hold three and a half million Palestinians under occupation in my mind is bad for Israel, also for the Palestinians, also for Israel's economy.''

Coming from Sharon, builder and defender of settlements for more than a generation, the word stunned his longtime fellow hard-liners. The burly former general had for years pointedly referred to land claimed by Palestinian Arabs as Judea and Samaria, in the hope that the reminder of the biblical heritage of the ancient Jews would lend historical authority to Israel's right to the land west of the west bank of the Jordan River.

Sharon refused to call those 1.45 million acres (slightly smaller than Delaware) ''the West Bank,'' as most of the Western media did, because it seemed to suggest that the land was not part of the state of Israel. He was among the many hard-liners who resented what they considered an even more pro-Palestinian usage, ''the occupied West Bank.'' Although the kingdom of Jordan claimed that territory from 1948 to 1967, its claim was not recognized by most of the world's nations; after Israel defeated an Arab attempt to destroy the Israeli state in 1967, Israel moved into the land to ensure what it called ''defensible borders.''

In light of United Nations resolutions calling for a withdrawal from ''territories'' -- but specifically not all territories -- seized in Israel's defensive war, Israelis tried out the phrase administered territories. Those sympathetic to the cause of an independent Palestinian state preferred occupied West Bank, which imputed impermanence to the arrangement.

As the usage war tilted toward the Palestinians, Israelis recalled that the legal status of Judea/Samaria or the West Bank had, since the Yom Kippur war, been ''areas in dispute.'' A neutral term was floated out to provide occupied with competition: disputed territories. ''There is a world of difference,'' wrote the Sharon adviser Dore Gold last year, ''between a situation in which Israel approaches the international community as a 'foreign occupier' with no territorial right and one in which Israel has a strong historical right to the land.'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endeared himself to embattled Israelis by showing his understanding of the nuances as he referred to ''the so-called occupied territories.''

Then Sharon deliberately used the word occupation repeatedly. Israel's nonpartisan attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, promptly rebuked the prime minister, reminding him that the proper legal term was disputed territories. Sharon accepted that, asserting: ''We are not occupiers. In the diplomatic dictionary these are disputed lands.'' He told supporters in Haifa that he was referring to the inhabitants, not to the territory: ''We don't want to rule three and a half million Palestinians. That's what I meant when I used the word occupation.''

But the cat -- in this case, the word occupied -- was out of the bag. The Hebrew word Sharon used was kibush, often translated as ''conquest.'' The root of occupied is the Latin occupare, ''to seize by force,'' as the United States and its allies did in Iraq, where we are now officially ''the occupying force,'' acting as sovereign and responsible for order. Neither is a word that most Israelis want to use in negotiation, which is why hard-liners were stunned and Palestinians were pleased.


A reporter asked Secretary of State Colin Powell, returning from a trip to the Middle East, about the ''road map'' agreement: ''Isn't it just kicking the can farther down the road, putting off the most difficult issues, particularly settlements?''

''At least we have a can in the road,'' replied Powell, reared in the South Bronx and familiar with the children's game. ''The can is in the road now, and we will start moving it down the road, perhaps with little kicks as opposed to a 54-yarder.''

The metaphor is in play more than the game. In his final months in office, President Clinton said he wanted to resolve Middle East problems sooner rather than later, but for ''some foreign policy problems, the answer is to kick the can down the road and wait for them to get better and hope time takes care of them.''

Jim Lehrer put the title of his 1988 novel in the opening sentence: ''I was too old to play kick the can anymore.''

Diplomats do not use ring-a-levio, hopscotch, ring around the rosie, prisoner's base, Jackie shine a light or stoopball to describe global strategies. It's always kick the can, it always means ''postpone action'' and it calls for etymological examination.

Called tin can Tommy or kick the tinnie in Britain, the American version can be played by kicking a tin can down the street (or road, in rural areas), challenging the can-guarder to chase the can and bring it back to base while everyone hides. The can-guarder (a kid named ''It'') then has to find a player in hiding without anyone else's kicking the can. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) tells us that this version of hide-and-seek also goes by the names kick the wicket and lurky nurky.

Not the game you remember? Another version, for urban rowdies, is setting a can on a sewer cover and seeing who can kick it so hard and so far that it breaks a window and everybody scatters before the cops get there.

If you have no playmates, and nobody loves you, there's the solitaire version: just walkin' along, kickin' the can ahead, watchin' it roll, kickin' it again, until you get to your destination or just get bored, at which point you let the next guy who comes along kick it farther down the road. This is the diplomatic meaning of the extended metaphor, and if you can kick it 54 yards from a standing start, you're a better man than I am, Colin Powell.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company