Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Few Things That Needed to Be Talked about during Obama’s Visit

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.

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The Palestinians are the New Cubans: The Emerging Red-Green Alliance

Karagiannis and McCauley have written an excellent article on the interesting alliance between the left and political Islam. It can be found here. A summary is below.

By Emmanuel Karagiannis, Ph.D. and Clark McCauley, Ph.D

It seems that the end of Cold War has brought an end to the enmity between communism and Islamism. Indeed, there are growing signs that an informal alliance is forming between political Islam and the radical Left, both at the state level and the level of groups and movements. Tehran has reached out to left-leaning regimes in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, offering energy and trade. Europe’s Islamists and leftists have also joined forces. In March 2012, British firebrand socialist Galloway and his pro-Hamas Respect Party scored a sensational victory in Bradford West (a heavily Muslim-populated district) by-election, gaining 55,9 percent of the vote. Although this emerging alliance may appear as a tactical marriage of convenience between two fundamentally different political philosophies opposing the West, Reds and Greens have more in common than they dare to admit.
First, Islam and communism emphasize group goals over individual interests. Both seek to establish a society based on sacred texts: the Quran for the Islamists and the works of Marx and Lenin for leftists. Furthermore, they offer a vision of a just society that can be created on earth: the Marxist utopia of a classless communist society parallels the utopian vision of a restored Caliphate. Both claim to represent an absolute truth that would lead to the salvation of mankind. Both have an eschatological view of history that includes the inevitability of a final battle between good (socialist progress / Dar al-Islam) and evil (capitalist reaction / Dar al-Harb), and both can justify violence to achieve this goal.
Islamists and leftists have been keen to present themselves as part of the wider anti-globalization movement. A common denominator of the anti-globalization movement is its claim that big capitalism is inherently unjust in serving the interests of Western elites to the detriment of (working and Muslim) masses around the world. It is hardly a coincidence that Hezbollah’s new manifesto, published in December 2009, spends a great deal of time attacking “an economic system that only views the world as markets that have to abide by America’s own view”. Also, leftist groups have championed the cause of anti-globalization as the preferred form of anti-imperialism. The rationale has changed but leftists’ enemies are the same.
Moreover, both Islamists and leftists have portrayed the United States as the foremost imperialist power. This kind of framing resonates well for both, but for different reasons. For leftists, the U.S. involvement in the greater Middle East is outright imperialism the way Lenin described it. For the Islamists, American wars in the Middle East are just another episode in a long line of Western interventions to grab resources and land from the ummah. It is not rare to see pro-Hezbollah banners and posters of Nasrallah in leftist demonstrations in European cities.
Opposition to Israel has been another common obsession for Islamists and leftists. What brings together Islamists and leftists is deep hate for what, in their eyes, Israel represents. From the Islamist point of view, the establishment of the Jewish State was orchestrated by the Christian West to steal Muslim land in a repetition of the Crusades. For leftists, Israel must be fought as Washington’s colonialist ally in the Middle East. Recognizing Israel as the keystone of the Red-Green alliance, Iran’s President Ahmadinejaz has made the Palestinian issue his ideological core. He knows that for the radical Left, from Latin America to Europe and North Korea, the Palestinians are the new Cubans—the new Vietnamese who need international solidarity. By extension, befriending Iran is a logical thing to do for anyone who supports the Palestinian cause. Much to Tehran’s delight, Venezuela and Bolivia suspended diplomatic ties with Israel following the Gaza crisis in 2009, as did Nicaragua in response to the Gaza flotilla raid in June 2010.
No matter how unlikely it may seem, leftists and Islamists have come closer in recent years. Despite a long history of animosity and conflict, the two sides have joined efforts to confront the United States, Israel, and the West. Antiglobalization, anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments have provided a common framework justifying joint action for the sake of working and Muslim masses.

Blogsphere Battles in the Galaxy of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

New media are still establishing some definitional clarity but they tend to be differentiated on the basis of seven concepts as typically described by Nancy Baym in Personal Connections in a Digital Age. They are interactivity, temporal structure, social cues, storage, replicability, reach, and mobility. In modern political conflicts one is dealing with technological as well as political issues; that is, the communicative content that characterizes the relationship between conflicting groups circulates through new media that allow for increased contact and interactivity. The Israelis and Palestinians, for example, now fight their battles in competing blogspheres as well as on more traditional looking battlefields.
The blogsphere has two qualities that make it a perfect electronic location to continue the ongoing battle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. First the blogsphere is egalitarian and after overcoming some simple entry barriers anyone can participate. The ideology displayed in various blogs is on an equal basis with the other side and creates a space that transcends time and place. A less affluent Palestinian can operate an electronic platform on par with the Israeli. Second, the blogsphere shrinks distances such that one side’s case can be advanced from anywhere. The blog as an electronic space has energized confrontation and made a discourse possible that is more concerned with values, moral legitimacy, and argument.
An army of Israeli blogs (see, for example pro-Israel blogs) confront an army of Palestinian blogs (see, for example, Sabbah) in such a way that the political arena intersects with the international public sphere. These blogs are active at many levels including institutional, individual, and national. One interesting quality is the effect on the discourse of blogsphere communication that originates and lives in non-territorial space. In other words, there is no argument about where to meet or the symbolism of a physical location because the meetings are in electronic space and, from my own casual observations, lends itself to a more moderate environment. Moreover, the blogsphere media are cue rich such that messages can be appealing to a variety of senses. This has, of course, its disadvantages because of the easy availability of manipulation.
My own travels throughout the blogsphere in the galaxy of Israel and Palestine have resulted in two conclusions about this form of new media contact. One, both sides use arguments that are most advantageous to their own interests. The Israelis blog mostly about security and terror and the Palestinians about occupation. The world is most sympathetic to Israeli security concerns as well as its opposition to terrorism, but the international community also sympathizes with the struggles of the Palestinians. Interestingly, this aptly characterizes the conflict with the two sides performing individual narratives without much engagement of the other. Even in the blogsphere it seems to be the “dialogue of the deaf.” Both sides are also particularly personal; they relate personal instances and stories designed to increase the emotional intensity of the issues. They take personal instances and place them within the framework of national conflict. This is a classic characteristic of intractable conflicts when the society is saturated with the ethos of the conflict. Both sides utilize all electronic qualities of the blog including photographs, connections to other sites, and visuals.
Secondly, the blogsphere battles are filled with calls to action. Both sides use the blog to initiate campaigns designed to delegitimize the other side. Calls for boycotts and confrontations are common. Blogs in conjunction with other social media such as Facebook have demonstrated some success at organizing and arousing political action.
I should note in conclusion that access to the Internet and the blogsphere holds potential for increasing dialogic intimacy between the two sides as well as remaining a platform for conflict. The Internet can provide a channel of contact for productive communication if proper conditions are established. There are more than a few instances of successful contact where the qualities of new media such as distance shrinking genuinely serve the purposes of interaction between the two groups.

New Media Revolutions: The Problems

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multisensory impact that is not present during routine politics.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities still raging in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

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