Disney response on Jerusalem exhibit calms Arabs

NEW YORK — Arab foreign ministers have defused a boycott threat against Walt Disney Co. by accepting Disney assurances that an Israeli exhibit — opening today at Epcot Center — will not refer to Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"We have considered the response of Walt Disney to delete any reference about Jerusalem being the capital city of Israel as an important step taken by Walt Disney," said Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid after last Friday's meeting in New York.

The exhibit is part of the new Millennium Village at the theme park near Orlando, Fla. Israel's is one of 24 exhibits in the 15-month event.

Israel claims Jerusalem as its "eternal, undivided capital." The Palestinians see eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Disney spokesman Bill Warren has insisted that the exhibit is not political and indicated over the last several weeks that it does not present Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Whether any change was actually made in the wake of the recent controversy, however, may never be known.

At the same time, the Israel Foreign Ministry, which paid nearly $2 million toward the cost of the exhibit, had been issuing inconsistent reports about how Jerusalem was portrayed.

Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told representatives of American Jewish groups in New York that "nothing has changed regarding Jerusalem" in the exhibition's content, which was created by Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Even Saturday, Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that said visitors to the exhibit "will have no doubt that Jerusalem is and will forever remain Israel's capital."

Levy was expected to attend a private showing of the exhibit Wednesday night.

Much of the imbroglio about the exhibit rested on speculation and rumors, as well as efforts by Arab-American groups and later Arab states to exert political muscle by threatening to boycott the Disney company.

A boycott was not supported by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an international businessman and shareholder in Euro Disney, in France.

At the United Nations in New York, Abdel-Meguid said the Arab League had been reassured by letters from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and Disney President Al Weiss.

"Consistent with our vision for Epcot, please note that the Israeli exhibit does not reference Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Abdel-Meguid quoted Eisner's letter as saying. "We sincerely respect and appreciate your reasonable approach to this matter. As we have attempted to convey, it was never our intent to offer a political point of view. We are an entertainment company."

The parts of the letter released by the 22-member Arab League did not indicate that Disney had in any way modified its position or changed the content of the exhibit.

Arab ministers decided the assurances were sufficient, Abdel-Meguid said, adding there were company disclaimers that "whatever is coming from a pavilion concerning political issues" does not represent Disney.

The Palestinian Authority also wishes to have a presence at the exhibition and that is under discussion, he added.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said it agrees with the Arab League's position, but also called for "disclaimers" on the Israel exhibit "to correct the impression that Disney endorses Israel's illegitimate claims on Arab East Jerusalem."

"This is but a small sideshow in the larger battle for Jerusalem," said Hala Maksoud, the committee's president.

"But to allow Israel to project Jerusalem as an integral part of its state, even in a Disney World pavilion, would be a precedent mutilating truth, distorting records and perverting history."

The Palestinian Authority — which had joined American groups and the United Arab Emirates in calling for a boycott — is abiding by the Arab League's decision but awaits the outcome of further discussions before formally changing its stance on Disney, according to a Palestinian source at the United Nations.

At least one U.S. group, the American Muslims for Jerusalem, is continuing its call for a boycott.

"Our position is not connected in any way to the Arab League," said the group's executive director, Khalid Turaani.

"Our position remains that we are still dissatisfied with Disney World's decision to go forward with the exhibition."