Monthly Archives: November 2012

Photo Manipulation by Hamas in Gaza

Photo manipulation has been with us a long time. There are two types of manipulations: the first is to alter the image and the second is to simply deceive the viewer about the content or story behind the image. Lesser artists tried to copy the great masters and pass them off as originals. In later years images were touched up with ink, double exposure, and airbrushing. But the possibilities for manipulation of photographic images with the advent of the digital age increased exponentially. It also has become easier to copy and send images such that they circulate and take on a reality of their own. An image can be false or deceptive but millions of people have been exposed to it before discovering the deception. Take the example below:

This is the sort of disinformation that can be easily spread by manipulating images. The picture of the dead child spread quickly across the Internet and was described as a dead girl in the arms of the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The child was killed during the Gaza war in December 2012 and, as reported by Palestinian sources, was killed by an Israeli rocket. But according to Honest Reporting, a website that tracks deception and manipulation, the child was not killed by Israel but rather an errant rocket fired by Hamas. This image spread through Twitter and Facebook and imprinted itself in the minds of many before the correction.

The picture below is of an Israeli child wounded by Palestinian rockets. You can see the Hebrew lettering on the jacket of the man holding the child and, as the picture points out, the coat of arms in the upper left is of the city in southern Israel Kiryat Malakhi.

In a very real sense, everything about a photographic image has the potential for manipulation and untruths. Beginning with the choice of lens, available light, and how close or far to stand from the subject a photographer makes ethical decisions. And it is certainly possible to manipulate an image in the interest of increasing accuracy or improving the emotional impact for artistic reasons. But these composition decisions are more controllable and subject to standard considerations than blatant lies about the content of a photograph.

The press has a particularly important relationship between photographic images and their publication. There is a fiduciary relationship between the press and the public. And the press should not be in the position of corrupting this relationship. Granted, simply uploading an image to the Internet and making a false claim about it is easier because the individual and the Internet audience have no fiduciary relationship. This does not make the act of lying about an image any less despicable but the perpetrator gets away with it because he’s not turning a sound relationship into an impure one.

One consequence of this easy deception is a loss of faith in the photojournalistic profession and the power of the visual image. Since the goal of political photographs or journalistic photography is to reproduce accurately some social or political reality a powerful source of truth and emotion is lost as confidence in the accuracy of images diminishes.

To extend the Churchillian metaphor from the photograph above, truth has to get its pants on faster. This is an issue of the distribution of images rather than their compositional manipulation. Visual processing is powerfully analogic and impressionistic and only takes a few seconds. The old refrain of “a picture being worth 1000 words” is true enough. The deadening cynicism that results from exposure to too many manipulated, exaggerated, and false visual images makes it even more difficult for quality images to do the work for which they are intended. These visual “lies”, perpetrated mostly by Hamas detract from the peace process and exacerbate the conflict rather than mediate it. Agreement on disallowing these practices must be part of a final peace process, otherwise truth will not only be slow to get its pants on it will trip over itself.

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Someday Hamas and Israel Will Talk

There is only one solution to the current fighting in Gaza and that is some sort of negotiated agreement. It sounds naïve I understand but until that time we will have little more than the standard conflict resolution mistake of “more of the same.” Deliberation in any form is impossible until the two sides are sufficiently willing and we are certainly not there with respect to the Israelis and Palestinians, especially the Palestinians in Gaza. But if that day ever comes the deliberative conditions below will be important.

Deliberation is a powerful normative ideal to strive for and in its heart it is concerned with the careful and balanced consideration of alternatives under conditions of democratic fairness. To transform the deliberative ideal into actual communication is essentially to operationalize deliberation and lower its level of abstraction. It is to take a theoretical ideal and convert it to symbolic behavior. But this operationalization is never easy or direct. Deliberative democracy is also primarily concerned with democratic decision making, whereas deliberative communication is, shall we say, messier. Deliberative communication includes broader intersubjective meaning creation and is inclusive of many forms of discourse and linguistic structures. Moreover, the polysemic nature of communication, where messages can take on a variety of meanings depending on context and other factors, makes identifying qualities that make communication “deliberative” even more difficult. But as I have noted in other places, deliberation is not one big philosophy seminar characterized by rational argument only. It must include the possibility that judicious argument and sound decision making can take many communicative forms.  In general, deliberative communication has the following five characteristics.

(1)   There is a confrontation of perspectives and argument is the primary communication mechanism for adjudicating differences. Argument takes the form of reasoned opinion where a speaker is required to support reasons and defend against critique. This includes evaluating materials, judging the quality of sources, and defending background assumptions. It is also true that some forms of reasoning maintain ideological dilemmas.

(2)   There is a relational component to deliberation whereas participants respect the other and genuinely listen to their perspectives. Participants actually engage one another and avoid monologues that do not take up the perspective of the other. Participants acknowledge autonomy and mutuality in a civil and respectful manner.

(3)   Consensus is the goal to strive for. This includes will formation such that the collective is ultimately committed to decisions. In order for consensus to be a goal deliberators must be concerned with disagreement. Disagreement is an indication of the diversity that is inherent in divided groups. Deliberative communication should include participants having their own views critically examined because of the presence of disagreement. This improves the quality of opinions. Consensus is a goal but lower levels of agreement are acceptable.

(4)   The position of authorities, tradition, and power are up for discussion in deliberative communication. Participants must meet the objective of the meeting but other foundational assumptions are acceptable topics for deliberation. As Young explains, “Truly democratic deliberation must not rule out self interest, conflicting interests, or relatively emotional or intuitive expressions. . .” (p. 472) (Young, 2000).

Deliberative communication must allow for equality and symmetrical power relations as much possible. People must be on equal footing and no one should unfairly dominate the interaction. Reciprocity would be an important indicator of equality. These forms of communication are specifically suited to diversity  and pluralism that are consequences of ethnopolitical divides.

For more detail see Donald Ellis (2012). Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict. Peter Lang Publishers.

Obama’s Last Term and the Middle East: What’s Next?

It is common political wisdom that things change when a president is elected to a second term because he is no longer constrained by the need to be reelected. He can govern in a more freewheeling manner consistent with his most deeply held convictions and the next election be damned. This is a slight simplification since presidents have other obligations and limits on their behavior, but it remains true that a second term in office makes it more possible to legislate for one’s legacy. So how will Obama’s second term in office change his approach to the Middle East and Israel in particular? I think there are three changes we might see during Obama’s second term.

First, Obama and Netanyahu need to start over or at least recalibrate their relationship. During his first term Obama was not particularly energized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, he would like to be remembered as the president that achieved the elusive goal of peace but probably realizes that this is unlikely. Still, Obama will not forget that Israel is a true friend and he will continue to support it through good times and bad. Obama and Netanyahu will move closer together and work to achieve common goals and manage common threats. Obama mentioned Israel many times during the campaign and this was more than simple campaign rhetoric. It represented the importance of the Israel-US relationship.

Israel and the US have a long and strong relationship that has changed somewhat but remains a strategic advantage to both. Israel assists the US with security threats and increasingly influences US military research and development. The two countries not only cooperate economically but have strong cultural resonances. Despite the fact that the US jeopardizes its relationships with the Arab world because of its close relationship with Israel, the US continues to balance these relationships. For example the US still relies on stable but nondemocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia to influence interests in the area. This represents US pragmatism as well as fundamental foreign policy convictions. All of this is consistent with Netanyahu’s primary concern for Israel’s safety and security. The relationship between the US and Israel as well as the importance of cooperation (on issues such as a nuclear Iran, terrorist intelligence, foreign aid, and military readiness) will be the foundation for a renewed relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

Secondly, Obama has other issues in the Middle East he must attend to. Syria is coming apart, a nuclear Iran is coming together, and the politicization of Islam is on the rise. Netanyahu and Israel will certainly be helpful with these matters but, ironically, Israel must be kept at bay otherwise their presence will inflame the situation. But there are limits to what Obama can do to resolve these conflicts. In the cases of Syria and Iran Obama must diplomatically pull strings from the background and this is always slower and more difficult. But one thing is for sure: Obama will be better in managing this than Romney. Obama is more interested in helping Israel with less violence and more compromise and this is important. This is a different perspective than the one from those who supported Romney for president because they thought Obama lacked a clear commitment to Israel.

Obama represents a more diplomatic and a slower foreign-policy hand than either Romney or Bush before him. A second term will ensure that he will be better able to express this agenda. I think Obama will spend more time working with moderate regional states to achieve interests on their own rather than waiting for the United States. For example, the US does not have a taste for supplying Syrian rebels with weapons; thus, Obama will work to triangulate interests of others to form blocks and coalitions that might be better able to achieve goals. Again, this is slower and more frustrating – and leads those with more macho foreign-policy tendencies to be critical – but is closer to an approach that will be successful. International alliances based on common interests of preventing terrorism and stopping those who would intimidate their own citizens are most able to build successes.

A third trend for Obama’s second term should be increased attention to human rights, especially with respect to foreign policy. Obama was actually not very vulnerable to attack from the right during the campaign with respect to strength in foreign policy. His killing of Osama bin Laden, the “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, and his rather casual acceptance of questionable security practices (under the guise of security and strength) have been roundly criticized. Obama has been lax with respect to the promise to close Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping, and drone attacks. I am convinced that he continued these policies for fear of appearing to be a weak liberal and now that he has no more elections to condition his behavior, Obama will turn his attention to the recognition of human rights. Drone attacks have essentially replaced the interrogation room and courtroom. They deliver a death sentence without confronting the knotty legal questions about interrogation or innocence.

The campaign is over but not the resonances in the deserts of the Middle East. After the world is finished congratulating him on his election victory, they will look to the United States for assistance and guidance. Obama will be more puppetmaster than puppet.

The Two State Solution and the Next Four Years

The cynics among us will believe that nothing much will change in the next four years in the Middle East but that is a particularly narrow view. There have been important changes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along with the relationship between the US and Israel. The Bush administration was aggressive in their efforts to reshape the region and trapped in a narrow ideological position that always seemed to favor the military. Obama’s first four years were characterized mostly by patience and changes in certain political conditions such as the Palestinian economy, settlement construction, and security. But Obama did not foreground the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he did not stake his presidency on it or claim that he had new ideas or directions.

The problem now, and Obama’s most prominent obstacle should he be reelected, is resuscitating the peace process and getting back to discussions about the political viability of the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with the right wing parties is necessary for him to govern but brings about a mix of partners that is thoroughly incapable of making the necessary adjustments that will improve the situation. The tensions between Hamas and Fatah continue and keep the conflict inflamed such that Hamas can interfere with any progress on the part of Fatah. But if Obama gets another four years he might be able to play a more significant role in a two state solution because the main parties – the Israelis and Palestinians – are incapable of reaching an accord on their own.

Things have been quiet of late. There have been few efforts toward settlement and many believe it’s a calm before the storm. Of course the Israeli leadership has been waiting until after the elections (which will be just a few days from now) to see who they will be doing business with. But whomever is elected president must engage in a workable two state solution that addresses the history and aspirations of both sides. Romney, at present anyway, is thoroughly incapable of doing this. A significant campaign plank for Obama has been that a vote for Romney is a vote to return to a way of doing things more characteristic of the Bush administration. This will be equally true in foreign policy as in economic policy. And although Romney is probably more moderate than the campaign represents, I have still seen nothing in his policy or speeches to indicate the sympathy or nuance necessary for genuine settlement of this dispute. At present, the task of solving the conflict is made more complicated by a loss of confidence in the two state solution. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become even more dangerous and unsolvable because the most viable and politically legitimate option (the two state solution) is losing credibility.

In the earlier days of the conflict the Palestinians expressed little interest in the two state solution because they saw it as artificial and, more importantly, were clearly not inclined to offering the Israelis a parallel right to a state. Later they came to accept a two state solution but not with full enthusiasm. But a second Obama administration will be in a much better position to inaugurate a state even though conditions are more difficult. Interestingly, there is more enthusiasm for building a Palestinian state among global leaders and Europeans than from the Palestinians themselves. A Palestinian state in the future will provide one barrier against extremism and help with forging coalitions with Iran and other Islamists.

The next president will have to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with skill and sensitivity. There’s a danger that a two state solution is an American solution or, even worse, an Israeli one rather than a mulilateral solution. Many Palestinians feel that the idea of statehood has been distorted and that anything they agree upon would be something other than their own.

There is a real chance that statehood could dissolve into the background as a Palestinian achievement. There’s so much cynicism and lack of confidence in the process that both sides see statehood is an impossible achievement. But Obama is actually in a better position than any previous president to resuscitate the two state solution because of his ability to speak to diverse audiences and thereby improve America’s standing. If Obama actually became engaged in the Middle East peace process and deployed all of his powers of diplomacy he just might succeed.

The world is growing weary of the endless repetition of issues such as security, refugees, Jerusalem, and borders. The entire peace process is filled with slogans and clichés about peace that does not get anyone any closer to goals. Obama is in a position to find a new language to reconnect both sides to their national aspirations and do it in such a way that all sides are strengthened. All of this of course is assuming he is reelected.

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