Saturday, December 31, 2011

One Year Later

It is now 2012 in the Middle East.  The new year brings along with it many uncertainties in the days and months to come.  The region compared to just one year ago, is fundamentally different.  While the final destination of this bus we call the Arab Spring is uncertain, it is clear that our ticket is one-way.  Compared to a year ago, the region in 2012 is fundamentally changed.

Future generations will remember 2011 as a year in which the universal aspirations of humanity became crystal clear.  For those risking life and limb in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, and Manama, the values of freedom and self-determination are far more than words on paper.  They are creeds; Rallying calls to end the era of oppression which for decades has stood between the Arab people and their destiny.  Watching events unfold live on Arab satellite television, checking Facebook pages, and following feeds on Twitter, the whole world was swept up in the energy and proactivity of a young generation.  Where this energy will lead is the question 2012 will begin to answer.  But if the Arab Spring is a movie, we surely have seen only the first few minutes.

The new order in the Middle East brings with it many challenges.  What will the role of Islamist parties be in government?  Will they drive countries to radical fundamentalism, or act rationally to maintain the support of key constituencies on whom they depend?

Will the post-revolutionary states of the Middle East be able to transition fully to democracy? How much democracy is enough democracy?  Will the rights of minorities be respected in this process?  How long will it take before we can be sure?

While these questions raise the concern, and perhaps the fear, of outside observers, there are also many things in which we can take comfort:  In the raw passion for change of the Arab revolutionaries.  In the support of those outside the region who see young adults not unlike themselves making a difference.  In the refusal of historically oppressed people to fear any longer.  In the dedication to a cause which has cost far too many protesters their lives.

Perhaps most importantly, 2011 was a year in which the Middle East, against all odds, became better.  It became a place where new opportunities flourished, where the flame of the human spirit ignited, and where the hopes and dreams of the future took root.  As 2012 dawns, let us continue to make the region a freer, safer, more peaceful place.

שנה טובה
سنه سعيدة
Happy New Year

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Knesset Cowardice For Christmas

At a conference of Israeli ambassadors today, Foreign Minister Lieberman said that Israel should manage rather than solve its conflict with the Palestinians.  The Foreign Minister then simultaneously rejected territorial concession while accusing the Palestinians of foot-dragging on negotiations.  He reiterated his animosity towards Europe as well.

For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that if Hamas joins the Palestinian Authority, Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu said he was willing to meet with Palestinian PM Abbas.  However, the move appears to be yet another move by the Netanyahu administration to avoid meaningful progress on Israel's long-term security.

This kind of reticence and foot-dragging by Israel's administration reflects its populist approach to politics.  Rather than actually addressing the reasonable concerns Israelis have about their security, the government is just parroting these concerns without doing anything about them.  This strategy has been sustainable thus far because it generates popular support and job security for its ministers.

But creating job security for ministers is not leadership.  Rather than simply reiterate the concerns of the public, governments are also expected to present solutions to those concerns.  Saying "we understand your fear" does not keep Israelis safe.  It also does not mitigate the threat posed by Hamas, nor by the Arab Spring, nor by European impatience with Israel.  

Peace is not a utopian objective for Israel, but rather a strategic security interest.  No one has more to gain from peace than Israel, but today's actions are more focused on making excuses than making these gains.  The government may argue that expectations on it to proactively seek peace are unfair.  But unfair conditions on Israel's government are par for the course.  In 1948, when Israel was attacked simultaneously by six countries, that was also unfair.  Yet Israel did what was necessary to ensure its security interests.  It must do the same today.  

These days, Israel's security threats are non-conventional.  When people turn to the government for solutions, they get empathy.  Empathy is incredibly important, especially in a country with the level of national trauma that Israelis have experienced.  But empathy and a "Lu Yehi" mentality is not enough to stop Hamas, or a Palestinian statehood bid, or BDS, or rocket attacks.  Only policy solutions can make Israel safer.  And the only way to get those solutions is by having a government that leads its citizens rather than leaving today's problems for tomorrow. 

The Netanyahu government's failure to engage meaningfully on these security challenges is not conditions-based.  It is fear-based.  The government is taking the easy way out by avoiding the hard work of security-building.  Ultimately, it will be regular Israelis who pay the price. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

How Israel Should Respond To Hamas 'Non-Violence'

News of Hamas joining the P.L.O. and renouncing violence continues to stick in the headlines.  Today, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal reiterated the group's alignment towards non-violence, noting that unarmed popular protests "have the power of a tsunami." 

It is unlikely Hamas has permanently turned away from violence (see this book for an explanation why).  Rather, it has calculated that in the present period, armed resistance is not likely to be either supported by Palestinians or effective.  In this regard, Israel is right to be suspicious of a group whose charter from the late 1980's calls for armed resistance against Israel and has attacked Israeli civilians on countless occasions.

On the other hand, Hamas has signaled clearly a move towards non-violence because it is working.  The Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N. has put significant international pressure on Israel.  Protests in Palestinian towns like Bilin and Nabi Saleh continue to receive publicity in the international media.  Israel is maintaining a status quo response to these changes, but given the high costs of doing so, cannot maintain these policies forever.  Sooner or later it will have to make a policy shift.

A smart Israeli strategy right now would be to "trap" Hamas in its current policy of non-violence.  This change in Hamas' policy is a reflection of a shift in its cost-benefit analysis.  Whereas before Hamas calculated that the benefits of violence outweighed the costs, Hamas calculates today that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Israel should make moves to cement the incentive structure which is currently keeping Hamas on the path of non-violence.  That means raising the benefits to Hamas of non-violence while also raising the costs of a return to violence.  

Concrete Israeli steps to cement this incentive structure include:

1) Easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip.  Doing so could build support among moderate Palestinians for Hamas in Gaza.  Hamas is concerned about losing popular support in the wake of the Arab Spring.  This Israeli policy move would make Hamas less fearful about losing Palestinian support, which it often gets from being the party willing to "stand up" to Israel with violent attacks.  By easing the blockade, Hamas would get the support, but be less likely to take drastic violent action.  Israel could also send a clear signal that the shift was conditional on Hamas remaining non-violent, thus offering a stick as well as a carrot.

2) Maintaining contact with the P.L.O. and Palestinian Authority.  Israeli disengagement from the Palestinian National Authority after Hamas won the 2006 elections undercut its ability to incentivize non-violent political action.  Israel could learn from this mistake by engaging with the P.L.O. despite the fact that Hamas is now a part of it.  Creating relationships also creates dependencies, and Hamas may think twice about a policy shift if it would mean losing the payoffs of its political investments.

3) Shift the burden of proof to Hamas.  Israel loses credibility when Hamas says it is embracing non-violence and Israel doesn't respond in kind.  Israel should react by calling Hamas' bluff.  This means it should encourage steps which induce Hamas to send a costly signal that it is serious about non-violence.  For example, it could offer increased humanitarian aid and ask Hamas to close arms smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza.  That way, Hamas either complies and Israel wins, or Hamas doesn't comply - looking hypocritical - and Israel wins.  Hamas is playing a careful rhetorical action game to trap Israel.  Israel should play back, and play hard.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Israel's Irresponsible Foreign Ministry Leadership

Update: Defense Minister Ehud Barak concurs.

Senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have called the U.N. Security Council discussion on Israel's settler violence "disgusting." In a move which even the right-leaning Jerusalem Post calls "undiplomatic," These senior officials attacked European countries for their criticism of settlements, settler violence, and a lack of progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Given Israel's already delicate position in the international community, these irresponsible comments damage the security of the state.  They also impugn the reputation of employees of the Foreign Ministry serving abroad who are now forced to deal with these comments in discussions with their host governments.

European pressure towards Israel is nothing new.  The Security Council's resolution on settler violence is also consistent with that of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the state.  Senior members of the Foreign Ministry might disagree with the Prime Minister's position, or legitimately may regret the double standards the Security Council applies to Israel.  

But international politics is not about fairness, and Europe's frustration over Israeli policy is the state of play in the region.  This is a critical time in which Palestinians have been accepted into UNESCO and are vying for state recognition.  Israel is facing increasing pressure by the international community over its presence in the West Bank, and several anti-democratic bills which have been taken up by the Knesset.  One of these bills seeks to limit the funding states - including European states - can give to Israeli NGOs.  Thus, the Foreign Ministry's claim that European countries are becoming irrelevant in Israeli politics is simply absurd.

Expecting that Israel will instruct its diplomats to be diplomatic is not a partisan one. Diplomacy is a basic tool of 21st century statecraft no matter who does it.  Just as defense ministers should not be pacifist, foreign ministry leadership should not regularly reject the basic components of diplomacy.

Real leaders don't make excuses.  They're too busy creating results.  At the task of advancing Israel's posture in the international diplomatic arena, Israel's Foreign Ministry leadership is failing.  Israelis deserve a diplomatic leadership which actually believes in diplomacy and uses it to protect the state, not cynical isolationists who would rather pick useless fights than create real progress and security for Israel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Egyptian Salafists To Uphold Israel Peace Treaty

Egypt's Salafist al-Nour party has announced for the first time that it intends to respect Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.  Salafism is a radical Islamist school of thought, and Salafists tend to be substantially more fundamentalist that the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.  The news is therefore somewhat surprising to those who normally see Salafists in a threatening light.

On the other hand, disparities between the positions and policies of Islamist movements are both precedented and necessary in the uncertain electoral climate of the Middle East of 2011.  For its part, al-Nour has fielded women candidates and generally refrained from religious rhetoric in its campaigning, though both these steps are somewhat inconsistent with Salafist ideology.

The significance of today's announcement is that it demonstrate's al-Nour's current lack of legitimacy.  Recognizing the peace treaty legitimizes al-Nour among two key constituencies.  

The first is the largely secular Egyptian public.  To be sure, the Egyptian public is far from pro-Israel.  That being said, Egyptians have far more important things with which to concern themselves than Egypt-Israel relations. Stating that it will not overturn the peace treaty is intended to demonstrate that al-Nour will not lose focus from the bigger issues confronting Egyptians.  This helps to legitimize the otherwise extreme positions of Salafism, along with other steps the party has taken. 

Secondly, the announcement legitimizes al-Nour in the eyes of the international community and the United States.  The regional stability that the peace treaty creates is a key interest of EU countries and the United States.  The exact balance of Islamist v. Secular parties in the Egyptian parliament is a second-level concern compared with Egypt's adherence to its international commitments.  Al-Nour's statement will not likely give international players much confidence given the radical positions of Salafism.  There is also no guarantee that al-Nour will renege on its statement at some point in the future.  However, it gives European and American policymakers leverage at home to justify engagement with post-revolutionary Egypt.

Salafist parties will be very important players in elections in post-revolutionary states.  In Tunisia, these parties have already caused unrest. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood/al-Nour parliamentary coalition would have unpredictable and potentially harmful effects if incentive structures to encourage pragmatism are not erected.  Today's announcement shows that al-Nour may be willing to meet secular constituencies and international parties halfway.  That may not be far enough, but it's a good start.  Israel's expression of willingness today to engage with Islamist groups is a smart move in this regard, and should be replicated by other states with interests in the region.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arab Spring Is Good For Israel And The World

The Jerusalem Post ran an editorial today claiming protesters in the Arab Spring have not created a better world nearly one year after it began. Citing Ismail Haniyeh - of all reliable sources - the article contends that since Hamas claims the Arab Spring helped Islamist movements, it is clearly bad for Israel.

This is a ridiculous claim, and a ridiculous editorial.

Ismail Haniyeh was speaking to a crowd of Islamists on the anniversary of the founding of Hamas. Saying the Arab Spring has helped Hamas to an Islamist crowd is as natural as a Republican saying they would annul Roe v. Wade in a presidential debate. But in neither case should we take the statement as indicative of actual policy.

Rather than looking at Hamas' rhetoric, look at its actions. The group has recently been more lenient in enforcing strict religious prohibitions in Gaza. That's because the group is reacting to the most important development of the Arab Spring: the empowerment of the Arab people.

Tunisia's Ennahda party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are also reassessing their role in their respective societies in the wake of the Arab Spring. Both have taken a more "moderate" stance, knowing that they must appeal to the vast majority of Arabs who are secular. This has brought uncertainty even within the groups themselves now that they must actually govern instead of criticize from the sidelines. Therefore, any statement that a country like Egypt "is on the fast track to becoming a totalitarian Islamic state" is irresponsible nonsense that not even the Muslim Brotherhood itself believes.

But the Islamist issue is also just one part of a larger picture. The real impact of the Arab Spring is the self-empowement of millions of people to achieve representation, freedom, and basic rights which are engrained in Israel's Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws. The people of the Arab world are joining Israel's alignment with liberal values in a way unprecedented in history. If the Arab Spring has had any impact over the past year, it has been to demonstrate the universality of the human desire for freedom and autonomy. This affirmation has indisputably made the world a better place in addition to creating new opportunities for Israel's long-term security.

This affirmation has not been in words alone. The protesters which the editorial disparages have been beaten, arrested, tortured, assaulted, and even killed for their commitment to freedom. The complications which the Arab people have been willing to take on is many times greater than the complications the protests have caused for governments. Their courage has inspired people around the world, across religious and ethnic lines, including Israelis.

It is clear the the empowerment of Islamist parties poses new challenges to the West, and Israel in particular. But policymakers must weigh these potential costs against the real benefit of the empowerment of millions of people. Given the way we in the pro-Israel camp champion Israel's record on human rights and values, there should be nothing scary about millions of Arabs declaring full support for these values.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why The Reuters Israel Bias Study Is Flawed

The traditional pro-Israel blogosphere has been buzzing with the release of an academic journal paper which claims Reuters employs anti-Israel propaganda in its reporting. Given that most of the evidence of anti-Israel bias in the press is anecdotal, an academic paper may lend considerable leverage to claims the media consistently discriminates against Israel in its reporting.

The paper suggests persuasively that anti-Israel bias may be at play in the media. But social science is not for suggesting. It is for demonstrating with a high degree of certainty that a given variable is causing a certain outcome. The difficulty of this task is perhaps the most intellectually honest reason many academics steer clear of policy-relevant research. Simply put, it's really hard to demonstrate anything to a high degree of certainty.

The author, a finance professor, begins by coding 50 Reuters articles randomly selected from the period of May 31 - August 31, 2010. He goes through each article with a list of 41 possible types of propaganda (rumors, euphemism, innuendo, etc), and classifies each instance of bias as one of these 41 types. Separately, he asks 33 college students to rate their affinity towards either the Israelis or Palestinians/Arabs, and their willingness to take unspecified supportive action on their behalf. The students then go through the same 50 articles, and answer the same two questions about their personal affinity after reading each one. The author finds that reading the articles shifted the students' perceptions towards the Palestinians in a statistically significant way.

Sounds pretty convincing, and for an editorial it certainly would be. But there are major flaws in the research design presented above from a social science perspective.

In the article, the author uses a fancy-sounding technique called ethnographic content analysis (ECA). Content analysis, as much as it pains this blogger to admit, is a fancy term for going through a document with a pen and circling stuff that's interesting. Ethnographic content analysis means going through the document and circling stuff "reflexively" rather than developing transparent, reliable, and fair definitions of the coding categories before doing the actual coding. It is a method even more subjective than normal content analysis. So when a pro-Israel professor goes through Reuters articles about Israel, it's hardly surprising that he finds evidence of anti-Israel bias.

This is even more the case given that the timeframe of the analysis covers the extremely emotional Gaza flotilla incident in which tempers flared on all sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. A researcher would be hard pressed to find any truly objective account of the incident in any media or academic source.

Evidence of the author's subjectivity is compounded by the extremely questionable way in which the articles are coded. For example, the claim that the Gaza blockade harms 1.5 million Palestinians is coded as an "assertion." The UN and countless human rights groups say otherwise, indicating that this coding is false at worst and debatable at best.

The research design also has practically no controls. In other words, the coding scheme is the social science version of asking "George W. Bush: great president or greatest president?" Additionally, while the author begins by saying that demonstrating an intent to propagandize is nearly impossible for a researcher to do, he ends by accusing Reuters having an "explicit purpose to disseminate that [biased] ideology and manipulate audiences to adopt the same."

Furthermore, the student participants in the experiment read only Reuters articles. That means there is no way for the research design to speak to whether Reuters alone is engaging in so-called propaganda, nor whether students reading about an extremely emotional event (the Gaza flotilla raid) simply tend to side with Palestinians after being reminded of the incident. Nor does it demonstrate that college students are representative of Reuter's customers as a general population. Nor is the design able to speak to whether Reuters is biased or whether it is reacting to social norms about the use of force which the author considers unfair.

Most egregiously, the study tests for bias by essentially asking 33 college students, "Are you biased and if so, how much?" Such techniques are widely recognized as problematic in social science.

In conclusion, the article is far from conclusive proof of systematic propagandizing by Reuters. Attempts to explain Israeli-Palestinian media bias across academic disciplines (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985; Kressel, 1987; Giner-Sorolla and Chaikin, 1994; Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2006) have consistently pointed to the subjectivity of the coder rather than the media as the causal mechanism of the discovery of bias. This article ultimately is unconvincing at persuading the reader otherwise.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Israel's Ad Dust-Up Says About US Jewry

The decision by the Israeli government to pull an ad campaign encouraging Israeli expats to return to Israel is an attempt by Prime Minister Netanyahu to navigate the delicate subject of differences between the U.S. and Israeli Jewish communities. The case is an interesting one and illustrates the complexity of the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel.

In particular, the outcry of some American Jewish organizations to the ads reflects the particulars of the norm against American Jewish criticism of Israel's government. The leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League both condemned the ad campaign. ADL chairman Abraham Foxman has recently condemned what he considers anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset. However, the ADL also recently came out with a unity pledge, co-sponsored with the AJC. It called on American presidential candidates to avoid making Israel a campaign issue. But, it also called for "American voices raised together in unshakable support for our friend and ally," indicating reticence to condone criticism of the practitioners of U.S.-Israel relations.

The Israeli ad campaign dust-up indicates that there is a norm governing criticism of Israel's government. Despite calls for unity, the leaders of traditional American Jewish organizations clearly consider certain criticism legitimate at certain times. Statements from the centrist ADL and more conservative organizations like the ZOA and RJC demonstrate this point. Though their statements are directed at President Obama rather than Prime Minister Netanyahu, the criticism relates to particular tactics both leaders use in negotiating the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, for the American Jewish leadership to call for unity among the ranks while simultaneously entertaining criticism from its own apparatus is indicative of a deeper issue, one which goes beyond simple elitism.

Simply stated, the U.S. Jewish community lacks unity on Israel. The traditional American Jewish leadership is trying so hard to demonstrate unity of thought on Israel precisely because the community is ideologically fractured between traditionalists and progressives. The reason J Street is sanctioned for making similar statements to the ADL about democracy in Israel is because it is willing to openly acknowledge this fracture. Given that ideological unity is a source of political leverage, it is sensical for traditional Jewish leadership in the United States to uphold the illusion of unity for as long as possible. However, the new progressive voice in the conversation can no longer be ignored. Hillel's ideologically diverse pro-Israel initiative, the Talk Israel tent, is an excellent example of the best way for traditional American Jewish organizations to remain relevant, supported, and strong voices for Israel.