DALLAS, July 14 (UPI) -- The Gospel of John, in the New Testament, begins, "In the beginning was the Word." Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." Our decade-and-a-half experience working on communication issues shows that words are the most important memory driver. That is, most people recall a word or phrase, form their recollections around it and repeat them.
Recently, two words caused shock waves. One word alone has the potential for resolving a century-long running feud, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The other cost a major reformer his position of influence.
First, the word, which may break the stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians, came from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who used the word 'occupation' to describe Israel's presence on what Americans call the West Bank. He used it on purpose, saying, "Occupation - one may not like the word, but what is happening is occupation. To hold three and a half million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel."
Immediately, others rushed in to try to substitute phrases like "disputed territories." Sharon ostensibly supported that, but he reiterated, "We are not occupiers. We don't want to rule three and a half million Palestinians. That is what I meant when I used the word occupation." Sharon did everything but put the word "occupy" on a billboard. Immediately, Israel's position was changed, and ultimately its public policy will have to follow.
William Safire of The New York Times pointed out that Sharon spoke in Hebrew, using a word which could also translate as "conquest," and that "occupy" comes from the Latin "occupare" which means "to seize by force." Seizing land by force and conquest looks very different to Americans, and to all but the extreme right in Israel, than self-defense.
President George W. Bush has now made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a personal priority, and that is undoubtedly a key factor. But the use of the word "occupy" is changing Israeli public opinion so the government can muster the will to tackle the problem of settlements.
The other word was "mafia," which former Okalahoma Gov. Frank Keating supposedly used to describe the American Catholic hierarchy. Keating headed the independent board appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to clean up the church's widening scandal over sexual abuse of children and long-running cover-up attempts by Church leaders.
The word "mafia" was repeated many times in the press, but Keating actually didn't use it. He described the church's behavior as acting "like La Cosa Nostra." He used the phrase to describe the church's attempts to "resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away."
My prediction is that the bishops will come to regret their outcry and rue the day they forced Keating out. By trumpeting their outrage over what he didn't actually say, they magnified the dispute and caused the word "mafia" to be used over and over. If they'd ignored what he said, his criticism would have been a one-day quote or nothing at all. They only called attention to the fact that Keating's criticism is correct. The behavior by some of the Bishops and their lawyers is to use every legal, and some questionably legal, method to try to stave off law enforcement and outside attention. That is how rich criminals behave.
Keating's departure has called the independence of the board into question. As the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, the magazine of the order known as Jesuits, told USA TODAY, the conference is "going to have to find a new chairman who can control his mouth and still show him or herself to be independent."
So, in the beginning was the Word, according to the book of John, and we have today examples of how a word can change things. If we're lucky, we know that from personal experience. After all, who doesn't remember and recall again and again when the most special person in our lives said, "I love you" for the first time?
-- Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television.
-- Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers on issues of public interest.