Trends in Press Freedom and the 10 Worst Countries in the World

reporters without Borders Even the United States has lost a little ground when it comes to press freedom because of secrecy and security issues. Recently, some new data has emerged on press freedom around the world and the picture is disappointing. Freedom House has released its 2014 data and reports a decline in press freedom around the world with an estimate of only one person in seven living in a country where political news and press freedoms are encouraged and robust. The Freedom House data is available here.

The Freedom House report indicates two reasons for the decline in press freedom: an increase in restrictive laws constraining the press typically justified on national security grounds, and the difficulty a journalist has reporting from a particular country. It is becoming more difficult for journalists to move around in order to properly report a story. Curiously, in this age of information explosion it is so difficult to get information firsthand.

As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between increasing restrictions on press freedom and the political conditions of the country. Obviously those countries guilty of atrocities or engaged in war continue to see declines in press freedom (e.g., Syria, Sudan, Libya). A few other trends are noteworthy. (1) There seems to be an increasing distain for democratic standards. Authoritarian regimes used to cover themselves in the language of elections and human rights, now they blatantly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of their own political conditions. (2) The escalation of terrorism is increasingly used to apply repressive measures under the guise of security. And the debate about how democracies should respond to terrorism is a legitimate one, but in the meantime more regimes are silencing dissidents and restraining the media. (3) What was once pretty extensive Internet freedom is beginning to fade. Censorship and surveillance are increasingly of more interest to governments than access. There is increased monitoring of online communication, even in the “freer” countries, such that places like South Korea increased monitoring and censorship, and even Israel imposed stricter constraints on social media pertaining to the Gaza Strip. (4) The percentage of countries that are classified as “free” stands at 46% which represents a small decline.

So! What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) worst countries or territories when it comes to press freedom?

The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with the lowest Freedom House scores were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. Any sense of independent media is nonexistent in these countries or barely workable; the press is little more than a mouthpiece for the regime or so biased and restrictive that it barely qualifies as useful information. Iran continues to earn its place among the worst of the worst. Iran regularly monitors citizens and newspapers and jails journalists for the slightest criticism.

Democracies are currently struggling with the balance between freedom and control. The observation that authoritarians and terrorists can take advantage of the openness and tolerance of democratic societies is true enough. Some might even take it a cynical step further and suggest that these trends are no advertisement for democracy. But the report also highlights a few positive trends. There were citizen uprisings in Ukraine demanding increased press freedom, and ramped up pressures on the Chinese leadership to adhere more closely to democratic principles.

Democracies just have to wait out authoritarian regimes. Sooner or later their own people will challenge the regime or it will begin to stutter under its own oppression. But, clearly, it would be a mistake to think that democracies are weak in the face of authoritarianism because increased press freedom and access to information literally guarantee a bleak future for repressive political systems.





Obama’s Support for Israel – I’ve Come to the End of My Rope


US an Israeli flagI can barely stand it anymore. The knee-jerk reaction to Obama and his supposed lack of support for Israel is fueled by either rank partisanship or blatant ignorance. Signing the agreement with Iran is part of the protection of Israel not a threat to Israel. Moreover, in terms of traditional support Obama has been strengthening the US-Israel relationship and maintaining its historical bonds.

If you don’t think so then you’re just not paying attention. Below I’m going to be simple, clear, and blunt. For additional information go to the National Jewish Democratic Council. This is a Jewish organization and they are more likely to be demanding in terms of support for Israel. If anything, they are going to be a difficult group to please so when they expressed their satisfaction with Obama’s support you know it must be substantial. On the National Jewish Democratic Council site you can follow links to more original documents and click your way to the original sources of evidence for the issues I list out below.

  1. In a speech in 2013 Obama stated emphatically that the United States stands with the State of Israel. He pointed out that Israel was recognized quickly by the United States 65 years ago and continues to be Israel’s closest international friend.
  2. Obama has provided Israel with as much and in many cases more military aid than any time in its history. This includes $275 million for the Iron Dome Missile System which is so important for Israel’s protection from Hamas missiles.
  3.  Obama signed the US-Israel Enhanced Security Act which provides additional weaponry for Israel’s defense. This includes bunker busting bombs, F-35 fighter planes, and fast tracking arms   sales.
  1. As much criticism as Israel receives, Obama has clearly defended Israel’s right to self-defense and has maintained support for the position that the Palestinian issue should be bilateral. The US continues to vote consistently with Israel and has defended Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage.
  2. Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, Michael Oren, Ehud Barak, and on more than one occasion even Benjamin Netanyahu have praised President Obama and noted his strong support and alliance with Israel.
  3. The US has continued to support Israel behind the scenes in numerous subtle ways. For example the US and Israel continue to coordinate to combat smuggling and engage in military exercises designed to protect Israel.
  4. Even with the Obama-Netanyahu spat the two allies remain close and it has not been Obama who has wavered in his support.
  5. A narrow definition of support is what primarily informs those who continually complain about insufficient support for Israel. That definition is typically limited to military aid and other financial means. Obama’s diplomacy, and his slower more deliberative approach to the issues, must be considered a serious form of support and not appeasement. The critics of Obama when it comes to Israel have a narrow definition of the management of conflict and images of peace. No true legitimate third-party can be so blatantly supportive of one side at the expense of the other. If Obama and the United States are going to be true brokers of peace they have to be somewhat more inclusive. Difficult as it is, a truly sustainable relationship between Israel and its neighbors will come when there is some sort of peace agreement. And such an agreement will include the interests of others as well as Israel. That, too, is what it means to be supportive of Israel.

















A Conservative’s Proposal for One State in Israel

two state solutionThe proposal for a one state solution in Israel usually comes from the far left, which defends a one state solution on the basis of a pure liberal democracy and universal values that would not privilege a Jewish state, or from the far right that wants to simply appropriate the land and maintain its controlling stance. That’s why my ears perked up when I began to see announcements of Caroline Glick’s new book on the one state solution. You can read something more about it here.

Glick is a tough and articulate conservative who writes for The Jerusalem Post and has been an assistant foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu. Over the years I have found her to be worth reading, even though I often disagree, and a relentless conservative defender of Israel.

Glick has given up on the two-state solution. She claims that the whole thing was doomed from the beginning and she has now become a defender of a one state solution. I found myself eager to read on because I can’t imagine a one state solution that does not significantly disadvantage Israel. Most sensible defenders of Israel – the ones who realize Israel’s mistakes and don’t want to oppress anyone – just want a state to be standing in the end that is devoted to Jewish particularity with the Constitution or Statement of Principles that makes it impossible to eliminate the Jewish character of the state. So how would Glick reconcile this?

She begins by making arguments such as the following: the two-state solution it turns out makes it impossible for Jews to live and pray in Jerusalem and to assert any rights to the traditional lands of Judea and Samaria. This is because Palestinians would be there and living in a Palestinian state including areas of Jerusalem. I never thought of this as a problem but rather an integrative solution. Yes, in some hypothetical two states sections of Jerusalem would be Palestinian and make for a peaceful and coordinated community rather than one that denies Jews access to holy sites. Such a solution, I always presumed, would not have been negotiated in the first place. For all intents and purposes Glick’s argument here is to establish a dominant Israeli Jewish society that somehow magically treats the Palestinians appropriately but keeps them from full power in the political system. I don’t know how this is supposed to work.

Then, Glick makes the argument from history about Israel’s legal claim to sovereignty over Judea and Samaria and how it is grounded in international law. She cites a few experts and documents and then seems actually to believe that the issue is settled. She lists out the standard statements about cease-fire lines not being political borders and the Arab rejection of the partition and again seems to accept these as a given. Surely she does not think that Arab states will simply accept Israel’s rights to the West Bank,that arguments about borders from history are clear and cannot be confounded. These arguments have been contested for decades. Their easy rejection is part of the nature of intractable conflicts where history becomes the plaything of each side.

Glick’s solution is essentially to extend Israeli law to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. She seems to think the Palestinians will accept Israeli law the same way the Druze and Arab residents have. Additionally, one of her reasons for the rejection of the two-state solution is that Palestinian leaders are deeply anti-Semitic and the establishment of a state would be problematic for Israel. I accept that the Palestinians probably have more than a few misconceptions about Jews, but transforming these stereotypes and prejudices must be part of the peace process and can be facilitated by the existence of their own state.

In the end, I found Glick’s proposals to be reasonably shallow and unworkable. The Palestinians are deserving of their own national entity and if they turn their attention to the noble work of state building then both groups of once or now displaced people (Jews and Palestinians) can experience a “return.”





People Can Change – In Defense of Communicative Contact

psychology of communicationWhat are the communicative, cognitive, and social psychological processes associated with change? Or, how do positive outcomes associated with contact come into being. Below I explain the processes most associated with how and why contact ameliorates or make change possible between conflicting parties.

Humans are open system information processors who are always subject to the influences of information. Even the most prejudiced person, with the most rigid boundaries and categories for classifying others, can unfreeze or loosen those categories in order to process new information or integrate new meanings. Any process of reciprocal interaction (contact) requires cues and stimuli to be integrated and made sense of. This is a conscious activity guided by individuals who take any sort of inconsistency, puzzlement, new information, or confusion and make sense of it. Consequently, two members of conflicting parties can have contact with one another and expect some sort of information processing that alters the cognitive content and boundaries of each. Surely this will vary by individuals with some being more recalcitrant and resistant to change than others. But all individuals by the very nature of their information processing capabilities are subject to change. The contact hypothesis, in the hands of knowledgeable facilitators, is designed to direct this process as much as possible; the conditions of contact can be controlled such that they maximize the opportunities for communication to work. Contact, and the information processing that accompanies it, is by definition communicative and interactive and potentially transformational even if the transformation is minimal. By emphasizing interpersonal exchanges the chances for altering attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and perceptions are increased potentially resulting in change for individuals and groups. This possibility for learning and integrating new information makes it possible to develop practices related to positive change such as restorative justice, forgiveness, cooperation, and reconciliation. It is grounded in a cultural context and articulates a subjectively central interaction where the participants are the primary resources.

Groups in conflict must adjust and change for the purpose of peaceful relationships, political order, and the recognition of group rights. Interactions between divergent groups, then, are subject to different perspectives and patterns of communication necessary for reaching across symbolic divides and working toward consensus on difficult issues. Contact experiences can be designed for maximum conditions essential to the linking and convergence sought after by conflicting groups. Dryzek (2010), for example, makes the distinction between bonding communication and bridging communication. Bonding communication takes place when people in groups are similar and share similar backgrounds and cultures. Bonding intensifies commonalities and identification with others. For instance, Yasser Arafat was known to speak one way to his own people and another way to international or culturally different groups. When speaking to his own cultural group he engaged in bonding forms of communication by using Arabic communication patterns and emotionally arousing discourse. This type of communication intensifies group identity and deepens divisions with outgroups. Of course, President Bush adopted a bonding discourse in order to solidify support after 9/11. Bonding discourse can separate groups into polarized differences and reinforce attitudes. It is not the kind of communication most conducive to unfreezing prejudices or moderating stereotypes of outgroups. Rather, a contact experience would benefit from communicative arrangements designed to “bridge” individuals and groups. Bridging communication takes the perspective of the other and works to incorporate it into one’s own outlook. The goal is to bridge or transcend differences between groups by providing some pathway from one group reality to the other. Contact experiences are fundamentally concerned with bridging disparate realities by using communication to coordinate and manage meanings and relationships. Such bridging contact can be difficult because group members must recognize and understand the attitudes and beliefs of the other and adjust or incorporate them in some way. There are any number of psychological barriers, filters, and defense mechanisms that make bridging communication difficult. The burden of bridging communication is considerable especially when one group is a discriminated against minority. Bridging communication must find overarching shared values that appeal to and connect both sides. So, for example, even though one side (e.g. Palestinians) is discriminated against they must participate in the task of building bridges in order to achieve full rights and representation.

The Nuclear Deal with Iran is a Good One and in The Right Direction – Yes, Even for Israel.

An_Iran_nuclear_deal The nuclear deal with Iran is just fine and a strong piece of international diplomacy that Obama should get credit for. Let’s take a closer look at the issues and try to respond on the basis of good policy and evidence rather than fixed ideological positions. We can begin by examining the consequences of doing nothing. In that case, the only options are to continue the let Iran develop nuclear power until it is weaponized or respond with violence by bombing their facilities and resources. Both options are just counterproductive. Bombing Iran – the position of knee-jerk conservatives and those with fantasies about killing all your enemies in one easy swoop – would be extremely provocative and probably bring about just what it is we are trying to prevent. That is, it would justify Iran’s counterattack as well as any other forms of military action. It would jeopardize Israel and the United States and move relationships backward rather than forward.

Of course the deal is not perfect and it is dependent on the quality of inspections and the conscientiousness of all the parties involved. But it’s a negotiation, a compromise, a synthesis emerging out of a thesis and antithesis with all due respects to Hegel and the logic of epistemological value. We should try to rise above the rank ideological analyses that simply equate this with appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s (I invoke my typical refrain that every time you compare a foreign policy decision to Hitler or the Nazis the quality of the arguments and discussion has just declined). This is an attempt at rational management and the prevention of unspeakable violence. There are more reasons why this deal is a step in the right direction.

First, it is not an act that leaves Israel vulnerable. If it sets the foundation for some stability, it will protect Israel rather than threaten Israel. If the sanctions work properly they will become even more intense if Iran violates the tenets of the deal. Iran must be approached as a rational actor that cares about protecting its citizens. I understand its religious proclivities and irresponsible statements regarding the existence of Israel and the U. S. (The Great Satan) but Iran is also a historically sophisticated culture that many believe want a seat at the table of civilized nations.

Secondly, the most cynical among us claim that Obama cares about nothing but his legacy. Really! Obama instituted this process with his own reputation in the future in mind only? Obama has always been more interested in a slower hand and a diplomatic stance than anything else. He believes in dialogue and contact with enemies when necessary leaving violence as a last resort. Obama recognized the importance of a nuclear deal and worked hard to achieve it.

And third, Iran may be a historical enemy of the United States, especially after the hostage crisis and the revolution in 1979, and even be a threat to some of our allies but again the nuclear deal potentially brings stability. The possible payoff of improved relations with Iran is considerable and includes a counterbalance to ISIS who are Sunni and an opportunity for Iran to forge a more stable relationship for the U. S. among some unstable places like Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon all of which are in Iran’s sphere of influence. If, and I certainly recognize that this is a conditional, this deal is even minimally effective and Iran spends more time in bridging discourse with the United States than this in itself will be a significant achievement and foundational to the management of conflict.

Assuming that Congress expresses support for the deal – and I think they will since some polls show that close to 80% of Americans support the deal – then Iran’s nuclear capabilities will have been constrained, and that is the primary goal. As of now, this agreement is a diplomatic achievement and with just the smallest amount of commitment and moral fortitude it will evolve into a significant stabilizing force in international relations.

The Relationship between Israel and the US: Big Brothers and Little Brothers Fight

Obama_Netanyahu_e_2515610k.jpgMy conservative friends ask me how I can be supportive of Obama given his stance on Israel. I usually explain to them what friendship is like and point out how they are getting hysterical over little. His relationship with Israel is no different than that between two friends who argue politics, often think the other is crazy, but each is the first to call the other in time of trouble. Sure things are a little tough at the moment and Netanyahu’s visit certainly was an offense, but they still have each other’s back.

Conservative Republicans and blind Israel supporters continue to cast Obama in the role of Israel’s antagonist. They embrace Netanyahu and criticize Obama. Obama is regularly cast as unsympathetic toward Israel or, worse, ignorant of Israel’s true security needs. Those on the fringe end of the conservative spectrum, the ones that call Obama a socialist, continue to believe that Obama prefers international liberal rights to individual group rights. Consequently, they assume Obama is willing to kick Israel to the curb while placating Arabs and the international left.

Those of us who spend many waking hours thinking, or writing, or teaching about these issues are not surprised that the big brother and little brother fight. The suggestion that a two state solution use borders somewhere along the 1967 lines is so common in the literature and in discussions about resolving the conflict that the statement has little effect on me. Most people, including the majority of the Israeli public, prefer a two state solution with borders being defined as somewhere along 67 lines. Netanyahu is correct that those borders would not be sufficiently defensible. But with buffer zones, electronic surveillance, and swaps it’s possible to establish borders for a Palestinian state. To pounce on this single statement was simply inaccurate and unfair.

Moreover, Obama’s has made some very supportive statements throughout his presidency. And playing politics or simply grubbing for the Jewish vote does not explain these comments
because they commit Obama to a course of action. Hence Obama told AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” This is an unbelievably provocative statement and probably will not be included in some final two state solution. Obama has stated clearly that the two state solution is subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to determine a final status. But even with the latest moves in the UN I bet this issue just fades away. Any ultimate solution will be negotiated with the Israelis and Palestinians. I trust Israel will do nothing that undermines its own security.

Obama has chastised Assad; he has encouraged Yemen’s president Saleh to leave office; he has supported the people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. Calling on him to send in troops or overtly assert American power is simply politically irresponsible. Obama has recognized emphatically the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Obama is not trying to appeal to everyone. He is encouraging the Israelis to make necessary movements in an effort to stimulate discussion. Right now nothing is going on. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas; he’s adamant about 67 borders not being defensible so he wants to encroach into land east of Jerusalem toward the Jordan River. The Arab world is in flux so it does not seem to be the time for discussions. I credit Obama was trying to encourage additional contact.

Having said all this, it is clear that Netanyahu is not Obama’s favorite international leader. Obama does have a more accommodating and diplomatic style whereas Netanyahu knows exactly what he thinks and has little interest in modifying it. But Obama believes that he is serving the needs of peace and thereby the needs of Israel. He has acknowledged the problems of dealing with Hamas. He knows that the 67 borders will require adjustments and land swaps. And Obama supports and has stated as such Israel’s right to be a Jewish and democratic state, including its capacity to defend itself. This is important because the Jewish nature of the state remains problematic. Israel faces tremendous demographic pressures as well as political ones that threaten the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Netanyahu is making a mistake if he thinks the special nature of the US – Israel relationship means he can behave any way he wants. The world grows weary of this conflict and is already turning its attention elsewhere, and everyone’s patience has limitations.

Obama was very helpful to Israel by avoiding issues such as the Arab Peace Initiative, settlements, and discussion of refugees. It takes leadership to talk about the Middle East “as it should be.” Obama recognizes that the current situation is untenable, and that any UN vote will precipitate many problems. Of course, Obama’s primary lesson is to value human
rights over locked-jaw nationalism. In the past Obama has recognized Arab freedom fighters and advocates for democracy and rhetorically positioned them along with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Praise for Arab freedom fighters is good for Israel.

Post based on May 25, 2011 post

Netanyahu and The Future: Israel and the Peace Process Will Make Little Progress

Well, Netanyahu has been elected for an historic fourth time. His path to the Prime Minister’ s office this time is strewn with damaged relationships (think US), international political stunts (speech before Congress), the race card (“the Arabs are voting in droves”), and desperate political appeals (“there will be no Palestinian state”). As much as I understand that he can be a charismatic leader, and Israelis obviously respect him, I also cannot shake the feeling that he is increasingly embarrassing. He has moved from being a strong and impressive leader to just another crude politician. But he also seems to have lost his political sophistication by failing to satisfactorily consider the negative consequences of his behavior. Let’s look at a few examples.

First, trying to scare Israelis about how many Arabs are voting was equated by the White House to the tactics of Southern racists who tried to scare the population about the black vote. Now there is a smart move if you’re dealing with the Obama administration. This is a president who is steeped in issues both professionally and personally related to minority rights. They were not going to be sympathetic to such talk.

Secondly, the statement about there being no Palestinian state, as a few observers have pointed out, undercuts the US argument in the United Nations. We have consistently supported Israel on the basis of bilateral negotiations; that is, the argument has been that solutions should emerge from discussions between the two sides. But if Israel is on record as opposing the future Palestinian state then why have the negotiations in the first place. Then again, Bibi does not want the UN to be involved in outlining a Palestinian state anyway.

There just is not going to be a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch. Netanyahu is not going to be the leader of Israel who goes down in history as responsible for the establishment of the Palestinian state. And this is why Netanyahu is actually dangerous for Israel. No one can think about Israel in the future as an intact stable political system that is both democratic and Jewish without imagining a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu has become a force leading increasingly in the direction of one state and all sorts of demographic difficulties.

I want to underscore the importance of a stable Palestinian Authority. Israel and the United States subcontract out security issues and border patrol to the Palestinian Authority and as they teeter things get more unstable. Even Israel would rather deal with the Palestinian Authority then some other more politicized and religiously fueled group (e.g. Hamas). So there are incentives to keep the Palestinian Authority stable even though this is distasteful to Netanyahu. Of course, there is the entire matter of settlements which I will not take up here but suffice it to say that Netanyahu’s predatory settlement expansion is a major sticking point.

Finally, there is the looming presidential campaign and US politics. Leaders of the Democratic Party have to find a way for Hillary to run to the right of Obama on Israel if she wants to guarantee the Jewish vote. Running to the right of Obama on Israel is not particularly difficult but it would be far easier for her to run if there is an actual UN resolution outlining final status parameters.

It is distressing that Israel continues to reelect the one person who is resistant to final status preparations. I just have the feeling that Bibi’s heart isn’t in it and he is trying to play both sides. What I mean by that is Netanyahu fundamentally rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, but must present himself as receptive to it. The US will maintain its deep commitment to Israel, but Bibi is not making it any easier.

Just for the fun of it if you want to hear Minister Farrakhan’s take on Israel and Netanyahu click here.












The Power of Just Not Giving a Damn (about some things anyway)

I don't care button on FacebookI was listening to an old Charlie Rose interview (from about two years ago) with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.”

Muslims regularly report that they feel humiliated by the West, which most Westerners do not understand, and some genuine political events notwithstanding, there seems to be little reason to feel such humiliation. Let’s take a brief look at the value of not giving a damn, or the philosophy of apathy.

I’m not suggesting that we should not care about some things just that too many people care about too many things. One of the tricks of maturity for both an individual and an ethnopolitical group is to develop a sufficiently strong self-esteem that you find little interest in caring about greed, status, self-righteousness, and minor slights. Of course, care about community, the environment, and fairness but always maintain enough empathy and knowledge of the other side to temper your own feelings and recognize even minor legitimacies of the other side. Moreover, we value passion and engagement but it is not worth being passionate and engaged in something you have little control over and can even do without. It is possible to care too much and hence hurt others with words and deeds.

Again, I’m not diminishing the intensity and difficulties of ethnopolitical conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I understand enough about human psychology to understand the accumulation of anger and distorted messages that result from generations of conflict. But containing and framing that anger is equally as important. Just as every child who matures into adulthood should understand the mistakes his or her parents made, it’s equally as important for personal development and maturation to “get over those mistakes.” The same is true for conflict groups; there are certain slights and humiliations that must recede into the background. Here are a few additional suggestions: 1. Most other groups – most, not all – don’t care about you. If you do not bother them they will not bother you. 2. You do not have to be friends with everyone; you do not have to like everyone in the same way. 3. A certain amount of obscurity is desirable. There’s a pleasure in fading into the background and not being noticed. The people engulfed in the passions of political conflict could use a few more experiences where they shrug their shoulders and sound like teenagers. They should say things every once in a while like “whatever.”



Netanyahu’s Bonding Discourse and 1% Decisions

US an Israeli flag

Netanyahu and bond with Congress

Anything interesting, novel, or exciting about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was absorbed by the flap over the diplomatic slight. And even if President Obama was feigning a gigantic yawn to signal his disinterest, it was an apt response. To be sure, the Prime Minister is an interesting and engaging fellow who is always worth listening to. But this time there was very little new and the content of the speech was rather bland.

Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of 1% decisions. These are decisions that have a low probability of occurrence (1%), but the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. Hence, the probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon – even on Israel – is small, but if you are wrong, well, you will not recover. Decision-makers in these conditions of 1% decisions usually figure they have to protect themselves, that they cannot take the chance of being wrong, so they respond aggressively in order to prevent the low probability occurrence in the first place. This sort of thinking and decision strategizing escalates the consequences quickly. One side, say Netanyahu and Israel, immediately takes more extreme measures because even though the threat is small it is existential. What Netanyahu would really like, although he will not say this directly, is for the United States to bomb Iran. I don’t think this is going to happen under any sort of President but clearly the Prime Minister is trying to scare the United States so we will react more aggressively.

I actually waited a little while before posting about Netanyahu’s speech because I wanted to see what issues emerged. I was pretty sure he would do three things. First, as I said above, he would try to scare the United States into feeling the same existential threat as Israelis. That is, he would work to enlist the support of the United States (and especially the people in that room) with some bonding discourse characteristic of groups with much in common. There would be lots of references to the shared cultural, political, and democratic nature of the United States and Israel. Secondly, I was quite convinced he would portray Iran as a crazed Islamic Republic seeking to dominate first Arab capitals and someday Western ones. There would be references to religious extremism and the triumphalist mentality of jihadism. And third, I knew he would argue that the current efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities or stop it completely through negotiations was either impossible or as he put it a “bad deal.” He did criticize the nuclear deal implying everybody’s naïveté but his own.

Israel’s foreign policy is based on existential threat. And one cannot be naïve, they do have their share of enemies and anti-Semitism and the equation of Zionism with colonialism is on the increase. But from a rather “rational” standpoint rather than the gut feeling that describes most thinking about Iran’s barbaric and aggressive nature it is just as easy to argue that Iran would not use a nuclear weapon. First, if Iran used a weapon they certainly know that they would invite a response. It would justify the other country, namely Israel, using their weapons. Secondly, any culture that used a nuclear weapon would immediately become an international pariah and suffer in such a way that they might not recover. Third, there are some solid ways to include the international community in Iran’s nuclear program and maintain some control to ensure that its nuclear material does not become weaponized. Netanyahu, as we saw from his acceptance of the speaking engagement without consulting the president, has a tin ear when it comes to diplomacy so why would we expect him to be any better at diplomacy when it comes to Iran?

I don’t think that other issues (such as his upcoming election) are particularly pertinent although Israelis may have enjoyed the image of their strong leader speaking to the U.S. Congress. It is possible to view Netanyahu’s appearance before the U.S. Congress, which is a fairly conservative Congress, and his bonding discourse as dangerous. When divergent groups “bridge” and try to close gaps between them, more extreme positions are moderated. So, if the Israelis and Palestinians have contact and build a bridge from the discourse of Zionism to Palestinian nation building, then extremists will be marginalized and the discourse of violence will subside. But bonding discourse, which is what Netanyahu did with the Congress, among the like-minded exaggerates differences, intensifies the sense of cohesion, and creates polarization. Netanyahu probably did not accomplish much with respect to the specifics of the treaty with Iran, and he probably did not scare too many people, but he did make his case to the world.

The only problem is that Netanyahu was talking to the wrong people. He does need to talk to the world or bond with his friends – he needs to walk over the bridge and talk to his neighbors.

Future Work in Deliberation Will Tackle the Problem of Religiously and Ethnically Divided Societies

The essence of deliberative communication One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.

The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.

The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.

Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.

Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.

I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.





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