When groups or political parties form in society along religious lines they organize themselves into difficult political cleavages. And this is particularly true when the political party is radicalized and immovable with respect to consensual decision-making and tolerance for other points of view. These groups are a problem and difficult to contain but ultimately must be controlled and defeated.
The United States has often taken the military and security approach but this only goes so far. You can’t kill them all. So what is a political culture like the United States to do if it is going to address these problems politically? Political Islam stresses international grievances and includes their own anger, frustration, and humiliation. Surely broad scale international relations are part of the answer: American drone attacks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and genuine engagement with Iran are all part of the equation that might lead to dignity and moderation.
But this is not enough. These rigid authoritarian political systems, that produce frustration and violence, must be more directly confronted. In essence, these Muslim countries characterized by extremist religious parties are failing to provide economic development, political voice, and human rights. Something more direct must be done but that something must be moral and politically viable. Members of these authoritarian cultures typically report feeling humiliated and hopeless. In places like Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan large segments of the population are young and in need of jobs as well as a sense of self-worth that comes from something other than confrontation with the West.
Our military efforts in Iraq might be characterized as noble attempts to begin the process of regime change and redress of injustices heaped on the people by corrupt and authoritarian leaders. But American military presence just exacerbates the claims of imperialism and humiliation. That’s why political solutions are more important than military ones. And although no single approach or strategy will solve the problem the best way to achieve lasting change is through good democracies that protect freedom, control corruption, and have effective systems of checks and balances. These democracies cannot be what are called “illiberal” democracies; that is, democracies in name only but really have unfair elections, authoritarian leaders, and laws that limit personal freedom.
Democracy promotion in these countries is not easy. It is slow and risky and fraught with dangers. But here are some steps in the right direction:
1. There is much distrust of the United States and we must restore trust by not promising more than we can deliver.
2. We have to find better ways of stabilizing political cultures than supporting authoritarian figures such as Mubarak and Egypt. Support for Mubarak was of course practical but costly in terms of trust.
3. Our knowledge of other cultures must improve. As diverse and multicultural as the United States is, we still have shallow understanding of many cultures, and Muslim cultures in particular.
4. There must be a way to talk to Islamist political parties. This is not naïve. There are some Islamist parties who do not envision a new caliphate but would prefer to accommodate others. Moreover in the era of new technology there must be more creative ways to make contact.
5. Some people, and I include myself, consider the basic tenets of democracy to be universal values. We need to use new media to broadcast these values.
6. Most of the world is highly sensitive to basic human rights and the rights of women. The argument that women should be liberated and have increased freedoms should be pressed such that cultural and legal repression is challenged wherever it occurs.
Wherever possible the United States must push for transition to democracy. There are a variety of paths to democracy and different countries must move at different speeds. But principles such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, constraints on corruption, and protection of human rights are easy enough to defend. The United States is an important player on the international scene and is in a position to intelligently and seriously push for Democratic reforms. This takes skill and nuance but it’s possible with some rethinking of how to promote democratic principles.
The two photos below represent different captions designed to frame the story in a particular manner. The first photo is from AP and was reported by Elder of Ziyon.
A Palestinian rioter tries to grab a weapon from a plain clothes Israeli police officer, right, during clashes in Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Palestinians scuffled with Israeli security forces, after an arrest operation triggered clashes in the camp the day before.
The second photo is from Reuters
An undercover Israeli police officer (R) scuffles with a Palestinian youth suspected of throwing stones while trying to detain him during clashes in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Clashes erupted between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police that entered the refugee camp, a Reuters witness said on Tuesday.
The caption for the two photographs is actually quite different. In one sense, the descriptions do not contradict each other. They both described the scene. But it is possible to conclude with some different interpretations on the basis of the caption alone. In the Reuters version the Israeli appears to be the aggressor because he is trying to “detain” the Palestinian. The readers conceptual background might easily identify the Palestinian as engaged in legitimate revolt and doing little more than throwing stones at the bigger more well armed soldier and his comrades. It is the classic David and Goliath image. Anyone writing a caption should have the typical reader in mind. But in the AP version the Palestinian is characterized as more aggressive because he is trying to grab the weapon and will probably use it on the policeman. The policeman’s aggressive behavior would of course be justified in this case.
In the Reuters version, the fighting “erupted” and apparently the Israeli police entered the refugee camp which was sufficient provocation. But in the AP version there was an arrest operation that provoked the violence. The websites “Elder of Zyion” and “Honest Reporting” claim that the Reuters organization used an Arab stringer for a description of the events.
This poses an interesting question with respect to the newsgathering process and how stories are framed. Some news outlets have websites and phone numbers that one can call in order to report a story. So anyone can fill out a form on the web and provide a description of some event or activity and perhaps attract the attention of a news organization. The person leaves phone numbers and email addresses where he or she can be reached and the news organization contacts them. This of course can be an excellent source of news and is the sort of contact that results in specified and situationally-based stories. But on the other hand, this process can be abused. It can result in stories that are biased as a result of the selection process or stories, even worse, that are staged or distorted in some significant way.
Actually, the description underneath the photographs is a cutline and not a caption. A caption is a little headline and a cutline describes the photograph in more detail. Reader psychology and tendencies are important because the photo sparks interest and then readers typically move underneath seeking explanations. It’s important for cutlines to perform their duties. Cutlines like stories answer the who, what, why, when, and how question of journalism. When cutlines are more on the objective side of the dimension they satisfy reader’s understanding of the picture but have not necessarily told the reader what to think. The more cutlines are politically motivated the more they draw the reader’s attention toward some specified reality on the part of the news outlet.
A picture may be worth a thousand words but each of those words is capable of altering the meaning of the picture. A skilled cutline writer knows these things and chooses his words carefully.
To the dismay of many communication scholars, the Internet and forms of new media have not become very effective mass communication outlets. Most websites do not reach as many people as television or other traditional forms of media. It is true that some blogs have become more effective than traditional media and this is because they satisfy reader needs and help compensate for the deficiencies in the typical press. An interesting article pertaining to these matters appears here. The article makes the case that the media fail to reach standards of democratic expectations as well as not living up to their own professional expectations. There are four reasons for a deficient traditional media and I will describe and elaborate on these four below.
1. The author of the article in the link above (Deva Woodly) begins by making the point that too much of the press originates with public officials and represents elite opinion. This charge has been leveled for some time and charges the press with hegemonic political communication. The press is owned by influentials who have interests in managing the debates in society. The solution to this problem is for more information and dissent to bubble up from the populace. I think this happens more than the author realizes but remains a difficult process. The relationship between the press and a democratic community is often characterized as a conversation. In other words, an exchange where elites and owners present ideas which are responded to in an effort to continue the conversation. The conversation metaphor is appealing but strained.
2. The second symptom of an anemic press is the emphasis on entertainment and titillation designed to attract viewers. Again this point has been made numerous times and is a standard criticism. It carries plenty of truth but it applies less to quality press then to the numerous press outlets available in the United States. It is true enough that news has increased its entertainment value but the literate reader and consumer of news can find serious information-based news sources easily enough. Moreover, a new story will focus on celebrity personality over deep analysis of social conditions but again these analyses can be found even if it increases the burden on the consumer. It is more common to leave consumers on their own to fend for themselves in finding quality news.
3. One of the most basic principles of American journalism is objectivity even though any high school senior knows that true objectivity is impossible. Still, objectivity can be at least approached or remain an ideal to strive for when the story calls for a straightforward narrative. I have always thought the burden on the news reporter for objectivity is too great. He or she is required to adopt a neutral pose and take a position on a story that is usually contrary to their instincts. There is a difference between bias and perspective – where bias is conscious distortion and manipulation – but perspective is just fine. Some media environments for example in European countries avoid the appearance of objectivity altogether by stating their perspective upfront and expecting the reader to realize the perspective of the press outlet. So, one will choose to read a communist newspaper or conservative newspaper realizing altogether that these perspectives are present. The literate consumer purposely seeks out the Communists press or the conservative press in order to see what they are thinking. This is a more uses and gratifications approach to reading the news because the consumer is making active intellectual choices. I prefer this approach to news.
4. And, according to Woodly, media consolidation is the fourth deficiency of so much news. The media market is dominated by a few large corporations and this is a disturbing development for democracy. This is the result of the tension between the news media and their commercial profit-making interests as opposed to their responsibilities for an informed citizenry. The influence of corporate parents can be even more insidious as the corporation directs the news. Profitability and bottom-line concerns are truly troubling but there’s also little that can be done. News organizations must turn a profit and size is sometimes an advantage in terms of the development of new products and administrative ease.
Traditional media is still powerful and reaches more people than other forms of media. But the blog sphere and the easy availability of user generated content is influential on the structure of political communication. For example, some traditional media use websites and twitter messages to circulate new ideas and influence the debates including what counts as newsworthy. New social media are increasingly an effective pathway to more powerful media and help amateur users influence the issues. Finally, some research seems to indicate that blogs are more argument and evidence-based. This clearly has the potential to expand political knowledge and turn blogs into a more commonly accessed resource.
The Tsarnaev brothers have little to do with Chechnya. They have spent most of their life in the United States and their connection to Chechnya is on the basis of an imaginary kinship with an ethnonational group. The brothers have been described as “self radicalized.” In other words, over time they developed a powerful sense of their ethnic identity and its humiliation which resulted in decisions to unleash extreme measures. How does this happen? How is it that generally average American boys, with Chechnyan heritage, all of a sudden foreground that Chechnyan heritage and behave so violently?
Well, ethnic identity is like a plot in a murder mystery; it thickens over time. But it remains true that this identity has to be activated or triggered. The more interesting question is how such an identity is triggered. What are the issues most associated with stimulating differentiated group identity? Such identity is rooted in tradition, sacred mythology of the past, and a collective consciousness. The work of Anthony Smith directs attention to the power of myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritage that are used by people like the Tsarnaev brothers to tap into and construct a narrative that tells the story of injustice and retribution. Under particular circumstances this can happen pretty quickly and easily. And it does not only apply to angry groups bent on violence to redress a past injustice. I have seen Jewish students with little knowledge of their Judaism and few touch points with Jewish culture and religion travel on the Birthright trip to Israel and return significantly influenced and changed if not transformed. They have experienced little more than the activation of their ethnic identity through symbols and myths that historically position them within something greater than themselves of which they assume a long kinship.
The map below is just for general information because most people (although not the readers of this blog!) think we are talking about Czechoslovakia rather than Chechnya. Some earlier research on terrorism found that terrorist groups achieved their goals one of which was gaining attention. In other words, immediately following a terrorist act the public turns its attention to the issue or cause of the terrorist. Palestinian terrorism in the 60s and 70s is generally known to have been successful at laying the foundation for future international sympathies toward Palestine. Consequently, I’m sure that Google was filled with searches about Chechnya a few days after the Boston bombings. The public simply asks “who are these people and what are they talking about.” At least that’s true of some of the public but unfortunately large segments remain oblivious and apathetic about conflicts in strange places far away.
Very briefly, the Chechens are autonomous people in the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus. They have been in conflict with the Russians for generations and this conflict has radicalized many and been violent, very violent sometimes, on the part of both sides. There has been a raging controversy between Chechens and the Russian government since the early 19th century when Persia gave the territory to the Russians. They became increasingly focused on Islam given the proximity of Chechnya to Turkey and Chechnya’s continuous desire for help from Turkey. In 1944 Stalin committed atrocities and massive human rights violations by deporting the entire population of Chechnya’s to Central Asia because Stalin claimed they were supportive of Hitler. In 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union Chechen separatists sought independence from Russia and this resulted in bloody wars. Chechnya continues terrorist activities rooted in ideological Islam and national pride.
Ethnic identity is a relational concept such that the categorization of an ethnic group is based not only on ingroup qualities but differences from outgroups. This is what Edward Said meant when he described the “Oriental” as inferior because he was relationally in opposition to Westerners. The Tsarnaev brothers somehow began to foreground their Chechnyan identity and define it in relational opposition to an American identity (as well as probably a Russian one). The added intensity of having a stigmatized Chechnyan identity (oppressed, mistreated, misunderstood) was probably sufficient to ratchet up their sense of humiliation and justification for violence. Unfortunately, the rising expectations about democratic development and the concurrent increased respect for group rights probably means that we have not seen the last of such violence.
Those who argue that Israeli settlements are illegal cling to their position with considerable passion. They maintain that settlers are living in a fictional world with a tremendous commitment to Israel but not to human rights or anyone else. The arguments are typically made on the basis of international law – which is a questionable and still unclear legal domain with respect to matters of legitimacy and efficacy. But in any case, the challenge to the Geneva Accords is directly confronted. The Geneva Accords, the argument goes, is concerned with people, not land, and claiming that the Accords do not apply to the West Bank because it is not strictly the territory of a sovereign state is inconsistent with the spirit of the convention. The Accords are further interpreted as protecting any group of people who find themselves in the clutches of an occupying power. This argument than devolves into discussion of the minutia of the Geneva Accords including interpretations and intentions that are probably impossible to know with any reliability. Those who deny the legality of the settlements claim that the near universal consensus on the matter is sufficient to establish the argument.
The international standing of the United Nations does not rise to the level of commonly accepted international law, but it is a significant body that functions in a legal capacity. That said, United Nations Security Council resolutions consistently call for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories and reaffirms the conviction that Israel is occupying the land illegally. The UN regularly treats the Israeli occupation as illegal and often defines it as a simple fact which is not subject to dispute. If it is possible to establish the territories as “occupied” then settlement activity is illegal. The West Bank is consistently considered occupied by the UN and this by definition makes settlement activity illegal. Very simply, it is somebody else’s land.
Moreover, if a territory is occupied then the occupying powers cannot transfer its citizens to the conquered territory, making what Israel does illegal. As I stated in last week’s post if the legal status of the land is unclear and no one has a clear political claim then settlement in that territory is permissible and the settlements would be legal. The defenders of legality claim that the prohibition against population transfer applies in cases unrelated to Israel; that is, if the land is available for use than those who moved there to use it are not violating any laws. But, of course, if the West Bank is considered to be official Palestinian territory then Israeli settler encroachment into that territory would be illegal.
Israel insists that its presence in the West Bank is militarily justified because of the attack on Israel in 1967 and Israel’s right to establish defensible borders as a result of success in the 1967 war. But the counter to this point is that Israel’s presence is not necessary for its security and that the occupation is thus illegal because it is a ruse for rank land acquisition. There is what is called “customary” international law which argues for the legal power of such “customary international law” when it represents the accumulated weight of international opinion. Even if there is no legitimately recognized international court, when it is a matter of overwhelming international opinion that settlement activity is illegal and inappropriate then such sentiment has the weight of legality behind it.
Finally, the International Court of Justice concluded that the mandate for Palestine was about self-determination for Palestinians and never mentioned anything about Jewish rights. Accordingly, any Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories is illegal.
The arguments on both sides of the issue can carry weight and have elements of them that are defensible. For that reason, the matter will not be solved on the basis of legal issues alone. Rather, the pressing interest of peace and solutions that respond to the needs of all parties are more important than legal debates. Having said that, I do not mean to diminish the importance of legal precedents and standing except to remind people that the law is simply a form of conflict resolution and some problems are solved by methods that do not involve formal legal arguments. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of them.
Even the beginning student of conflict management knows that some people simply will not change their mind or be convinced by arguments, no matter how unassailable, about historical incidents and accuracy. But the law is one of the best ways to understand an issue. Everyone wonders about the legal standing of settlements eventually. The video lecture below is a well done explanation of some issues and I highly recommend it.
Click The Legal case for Israel to hear the lecture.
But let me make a few other points. When some states don’t even recognize the legal legitimacy of the state of Israel, you know that” the law” is as easily manipulated and fungible as any other domain of knowledge. My goal here is not to explicate in detail elaborate legal arguments but to try and find some clear simplicity. In addition to the video above, a good reading pertaining to the legality of the settlements appeared a couple of years ago in the American Interest. It can be found here. Read the article in the American Interest at your leisure but we must begin with some basics.
What is now the West Bank was part of the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire that was largely ignored and lightly governed. After the Turks were defeated in World War I the current area of Palestine was assigned to the British who were given a “mandate” to administer the territory. Jews flowed into the territory of Palestine until 1947 when the British government wanted out of the mandate and the UN recommended the adoption of the partition plan creating one Jewish state and one Arab state. The Arabs rejected the partition and war ensued. It’s important to first point out that the UN resolution partitioning Palestine has no legal standing. The General Assembly has no authority of international law and the resolution was a recommendation only. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967 Israel made further incursions into the West Bank as a security and buffer zone. This incursion resulted in increased “occupation.”
Some legal scholars argue that the West Bank and Gaza remain unassigned by the mandate. Others claim it is Palestinian territory. But one of the strongest arguments against the legality of the settlements results from the Geneva Convention in 1949. It stated that no occupying power (that would be Israel) can transfer its own citizens into occupied or newly acquired territory. Moreover, UN resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territory. But it is also clearly recognized that Israel in the Six-Day War fought a lawful war based on its inherent right of self-defense recognized by the UN charter. Israel’s incursion into the West Bank was the result of aggression and Israel had every right to defend itself including maintaining a security presence.
Two Arguments That Support the Legal Status of Israel and the West Bank
1. Since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I no country has any firm legal standing or recognized legal rights to the occupied territories. Hence, what is termed the territories has never been part of a legally recognized sovereign and consolidated state and thus the prohibitions about population incursions from the Geneva Convention do not apply. If Spain overwhelmed Portugal and began to establish Spanish communities and populations in land acquired through violence then this would be a clear violation of the Geneva Accords. But what is termed “the territories” does not meet the definitional standards of a sovereign state.
In addition, it has been cogently argued that the Geneva Accord was designed to respond to the Nazis who transferred populations for the purpose of colonization and to obliterate the existing population. This, the argument goes, has nothing to do with Israel whose settlements are not designed for colonization.
2. A second argument is that the occupied territories were assigned to the Jews by both the mandate and the United Nations partition thus giving Jews the right to use and settle the land. This is based on the assumption that the legal status of the territories has not been established and Jews have no fewer rights or less justified legal standing than anyone else.
I will state the arguments for the illegal nature of the settlements perhaps in the next post. But it is important to underscore that legal arguments are not always the best way to solve a problem. They often enough lack clarity and specificity and do not satisfy sufficiently both sides. Making a legal claim, especially in an unclear legal environment, can fail to satisfy either party. The Israelis and Palestinians should solve their problems themselves.
The data below show interesting trends with respect to media use and news. The data were reported in the Journalist Resource (journalistresource.org/studies/) and represent current trends in the sources of news. The conclusions from these data are not my primary concern here because they reinforce what we pretty much already know. That is, newspaper circulation is in decline, television viewership has dropped and more and more people get their news from social media – online and digital outlets in particular. These are the only two lines moving upward in the graph. But what is interesting is the theoretical possibilities of this trend for any international community. In other words, what are the potential consequences of this shift from traditional media to digital outlets. Below I speculate about a few possibilities with respect to groups in conflict and the Palestinians in particular. Again, the data in the graph do not pertain directly to any other international community, but they do represent a very common trend and one that either does or will influence allcommunities.
Historically, journalism and stories reported in media outlets provided a sense of coherence and at least a certain amount of consistency. Journalism was part of the power network in a culture with considerable respect and cultural capital. This was particularly true in less developed political systems such as many of those in the Middle East and of course the Palestinian Authority would qualify. There was typically one primary news outlet and everyone was exposed to the same information.
In the West Bank political communication was very limited by a combination of Israeli restrictions and undeveloped cultural traditions. From the 1980s into the 1990s penetration rates for news and media outlets were very low. This was because of poor communication infrastructure, economic development that was insufficient to improve access, lower literacy rates, and the general resistance of the culture to adopt new technology.
Things improved as a result of the Oslo Accords in 1993 where the Palestinians gained more control over their own technology. But the Internet became a revolutionary change. Because of the cross boundary capabilities of the Internet, and the fact that the Internet respected no borders, the Palestinians began to thrive with respect to information access and distribution. Internet penetration in the West Bank and Gaza is higher than in many other places such as Syria. New technology has energized Palestinian NGOs, human rights organizations, and made the formation of online communities possible. Also, during periods of violence and uprising when there is damage to buildings and Palestinian communication infrastructure, they are typically back on the air quickly because of availability of advanced technology.
But given that the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza has digital access and opportunity at least comparable to many political systems, it means that they also experienced the consequences of the digital age. One consequence is that Palestinians are now more involved in the media industry and thus more influential. Foreign news organizations use Palestinian talent and there are more young people involved in the news business with more ambition along with critical sensibilities.
There is still the problem of media control with no shortage of leaders who would like to use the media as a voice of propaganda. But multiple media outlets and the possibilities of user generated content make this more difficult. The ease and accessibility of digital forms of communication performs its democracy work in the West Bank and Gaza as well as any other place. Multiple voices and outlets are important and effective constraints on power. Where authoritarian media are governed by obedience and respect for political power, new digital media are more likely to broaden possibilities and make government monopolies difficult.
It is true enough that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not easily addressed, but it remains the case that the rise in digital technology can structure in certain conflict resolution features that can contribute to a deliberative space responsible for helping to prepare the discourse of problem-solving. Some of the features of new digital technology that can enable the deliberative process are accessibility or availability of use to multiple citizens, equality or fairer access to media by a wider variety of people, along with the potential for more transparency and accountability. All in all, digital technology will benefit many aspects of West Bank and Gaza media. Even organizations that are more authoritarian such as Hamas cannot control digital technology sufficiently to manage the media environment. That is one reason why Hamas will maintain its reliance on violence as a form of control. Still, digital technology will facilitate the availability of mediated information that will one day at least find its way into the qualities of interaction necessary for progress toward mending political divides.
I think we under estimate the communicative and reconciliatory value of just “not giving a damn about some things.” There was a story in the paper last week about a 26-year-old boy, Ethan Saylor, with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caretaker. When the movie ended his caretaker asked him to wait while she went to get the car. The boy walked back into the theater and sat down when the theater personnel came in and told him to leave. The theater manager called mall security who forcibly removed the boy from the theater while he was crying and calling for his mother. Somehow, while restraining the boy and wrestling him out of the theater he went into distress and died. The theater manager and the mall security agent were more intent on upholding rules and “doing their job” then they were concerned for the safety of Mr. Saylor. Who cares if this young boy was in the theater without a ticket? It was not something worth “giving a damn about.”
Along a similar vein, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview 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.” Read the rest of this entry
Obama’s visit to Israel was important but it probably suffer from too much media manipulation and too many platitudes. This is a time when Israel will be at the center of news stories around the world. And as tired as the world is of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be increased attention to the issue. For that reason alone it is a good time to influence the agenda and improve the quality of discourse that surrounds key issues in the Middle East conflict. There are three topics that deserve attention and could help move the resolution process forward by improving clarity and accuracy.
1.The first issue that could use some attention is the exaggerated tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. This is based simply on the notion that Obama is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record.
It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.
2.A second misnomer is that Israel is not interested in peace, and amongst the Palestinians there is no one to talk to. Granted, Netanyahu is a stern negotiator who is not going to jeopardize Israel or give up much on his own watch. But as the saying goes, “there is a new sheriff in town” in the form of a reconstituted government that has moved, albeit slightly, to the center. The peace process is not easy and it never has been so I don’t expect it to change much. Still, Netanyahu has made more than a few conciliatory statements. He has come around to the recognition of a possible state for the Palestinians – at least he’s on the public record – and is capable of advancing the peace process.
The statement that there is nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side is also a common refrain that has the effect of shutting down the process and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abbas is respected enough and although he is not a powerful charismatic leader he is recognized as the legitimate leader who can make decisions in the name of his people. Abbas does have the challenge of doing something about Hamas and finding a way for future unity, but that seems to be a topic for the far future. Abbas must manage Hamas because most Israelis recognize that the only thing that followed their exit from Gaza was rockets. Israelis rightly claim that there is no evidence that conciliatory behavior on their part is reciprocated. Both sides are to blame for lethargic peace process.
3.The issue of the settlements has to be discussed more specifically and thoroughly. Israel suffers international condemnation and all the unpleasant epithets that go with it because of the settlements. There have been periods of time during settlement freezes when peace talks were supposed to flourish. But that rarely happens. This is because the role of the settlements is exaggerated. Even freezes on development cannot draw attention to realistic solutions. And both sides are equally to blame for perpetuating the conflict by constant references to the settlements. And undue focus on the settlements is part of this sentiment around the world that the Middle East can be pacified if only the Israelis and Palestinians would solve their problems. The Arab spring has brought the problems of the Middle East into sharp relief all of which have little to do with Israel and Palestine.
In the end, it is the quality of discussion and analysis that will make the difference in the peace process. Obama’s visit will help fortify relationships between the US and Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority. Obama should recommit to pressuring Iran and that will pacify the Israelis. But real progress requires more effortful deliberation designed to sharpen preferences and ameliorate differences.
There’s a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter
If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? Terrorists do not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting Al Qaeda and jihadist attacks against the United States as the work of “freedom fighters.”