Monday, June 25, 2012

JCPA Deludes On Egypt, Israel Advocacy Suffers

A major pro-Israel daily roundup is falsely claiming the United States supported Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi for the presidency of Egypt.  Morsi was announced the winner of the election yesterday morning by Egypt's Presidential Election Commission. 

Under the headline "Egypt's Secular Forces Condemn US Support For Muslim Brotherhood Candidate," this morning's Daily Alert from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) cites an article from the al-Ahram newspaper.  The article quotes secular political leaders upset with their loss in Egypt's presidential election who hint at US interference in elections.  

The idea the U.S. supported Morsi is a ludicrous notion for three reasons.  First, none of the leaders cited give any evidence for their claims of U.S. interference.  Secondly, the losing candidate and former Prime Minister under Mubarak Ahmed Shafiq was a much safer bet for a United States seeking to prevent conflict and instability in the region.  Thirdly, the Obama administration has little self-interest in supporting an Islamist candidate with no experience five months before the U.S. presidential election in November.

However, the Daily Alert represents these baseless and non-sensical statements as "reported support of the U.S. for the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate."  This representation is absolutely dishonest and factually incorrect.  The JCPA should issue a clarification to its Daily Alert subscribers.

Facts are an important cornerstone of Israel's hasbara efforts.With a circulation of tens of thousands, the Daily Alert is considered an authoritative if conservative source on Israel news among pro-Israel activists and constituents.  Of course, organizations like the JCPA are more than entitled to be as conservative as they like.  However, any credible representation of politics should be based on facts.  After all, pro-Israel hasbara organizations such as HonestReporting, Aish, and The David Project aim first and foremost to "provide students and adults with knowledge" to support Israel.  As Dr. Martin Peretz wrote in a 2010 issue of The New Republic, "The facts are on Israel's side."  Informing the pro-Israel movement with facts is not only a common sense move, but also good for hasbara on the whole.

With regards to how the pro-Israel community has analyzed Egypt's elections however, fear-mongering has sometimes replaced level-headed analysis.  As yesterday's post on this blog describes, Israel is right to have some concern about Morsi's win.  However, this concern should be mitigated by a number of on-the-ground considerations.  Unfortunately, this morning's Daily Alert is evidence that one major member of the pro-Israel community seems to care more about sowing fear and mistrust than about informing an earnest pro-Israel public.  

To claim falsely that the Obama administration "reportedly supported" Morsi's candidacy does a disservice to the global pro-Israel community and harms Israel's security by deluding its best and most passionate supporters.  It harms the credibility of the JCPA, and is a juvenile attempt to politicize the security and stability of the Middle East.  The complexity of Egypt's post-revolution politics deserves an honest assessment by Israel and its supporters.  Tunnel vision and partiality is a luxury the Jewish State cannot afford when it comes to its relationship with Egypt.  The JCPA should clarify its misleading item, and strive to present a factual account of a situation with important implications for Israel's security, and that of the region.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Morsi Wins, Is Israel In Trouble?

Egypt's Presidential Election Commission announced hours ago that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi has won the country's first presidential elections post-revolution.  This is the first time an Islamist candidate has been elected to the presidency of an Arab country.  As a result, the news is likely to cause considerable apprehension on the part of the Western powers, and in particular Israel.  

The Muslim Brotherhood has made no secret of its antagonism towards Israel, and towards many values at the heart of U.S. democracy promotion efforts.  However, while Morsi's victory is significant in a symbolic sense, analysts must be careful not to fall prey to dystopian predictions of Islamist domination or the death of secularism and democracy in the Middle East.  Israel should be very careful in the wake of Morsi's victory, but should not consider the events a crisis.  Here's why:

1) Many of the votes for Morsi were protest votes.  Many Egyptians voted not so much in favor of Mohammed Morsi as in protest of Ahmed Shafiq, a former regime official whose election would have seriously undermined the Egyptian revolution.  While Morsi won the election, the strongest opposition to the conservative social policy of the Muslim Brotherhood comes from Egyptians themselves.  This opposition includes people who voted for Morsi because they couldn't bear to vote for a Mubarak regime official.  In other words, Egypt's own citizens are an internal check on the abuse of power by the Muslim Brotherhood.

2) The SCAF retains considerable power.  The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sits at the top of Egypt's military apparatus and its linkages to the West remain.  While Morsi's election sets up a power struggle between the SCAF and the Brotherhood, control over Egypt's military is an issue on which the SCAF will not make concessions.  In addition, Egypt currently lacks a parliament and a constitution.  While Morsi's victory has great symbolic significance, the amount of power the SCAF actually will concede is much smaller.  More important than the fact Morsi won is what exactly he won: A presidency with very little actual power.

3) The Brotherhood has left itself wiggle room in its threats against Israel.  It's unlikely Israel will play a strong role in Morsi's agenda right now given the expectations on him to improve Egypt's domestic situation and challenge the SCAF's hold on power. He will also have to contend with disunity within the Muslim Brotherhood itself.  However, even the statements the Muslim Brotherhood has made about Israel refer to "renegotiating" the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, not revoking it altogether.  The major issue is whether Egyptian troops would be allowed into the Sinai.  Yet Egyptian troops have already entered the Sinai during Egypt's revolution, with express permission from Israel.  The term "renegotiation" gives the Brotherhood considerable wiggle room with regards to how it decides to approach Israel policy, if it decides to approach it beyond rhetoric and speeches.  Regardless, maintaining calm in the Sinai is a shared security interest between Egypt and Israel.  If Morsi instigates a military conflict with Israel, it will not likely reflect well on him or the Brotherhood, and could quickly end what would be a brief stint in power.

Thus, while Morsi's win is a change news analysts should follow closely, it is important to keep in mind that much has not changed in Egypt.  Its international commitments and SCAF-controlled military remain the same. it's strong urban secular population remains a political force.  The Muslim Brotherhood is no friend of Israel.  At the same time, Morsi ultimately lacks the power, even as Egypt's president, to seriously challenge the security of the Jewish State.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

J14 Returns To Tel Aviv, Its Future Unclear

This evening, thousands of Israelis are assembling at Kikar HaBima in Tel Aviv to protest.  This week's assembly is labeled as a defense of the Israeli LGBT community in light of homophobic comments politicians have made over the past few weeks.  The protest has particular significance given the arrest yesterday of J14 movement organizer Daphni Leef who led a group of activists to try to reestablish a tent protest on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv.

Police have turned out in full force to keep the peace after protesters yesterday knocked over trash cans, spat, and threw objects at the police according to reports.  Tonight, protesters smashed a window at the Bank haPoalim in Kikar Rabin.  These actions indicate that many of the protesters out at the moment are a more ideological bunch than the broad sweeping cross-section of Israeli society which turned out last summer.  While a combination of savvy movement leadership and government missteps may change the equation, media portrayals of protesters as angry leftists is not doing the movement any favors.  

Additionally, the police have deployed heavily in the area, mostly to ensure public order.  However, they may successfully intimidate the more moderate protesters who turned out last year.  

Whether the protests will gain the momentum of last summer remains to be seen.  However, at the moment, the message of the movement is being driven by members at its ideological edges rather than its center.  Last summer the movement captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, but has not yet regained these supporters in 2012. Unless the J14 movement can re-align with the center, this summer's protests will be the story of a movement vacated by its moderate base which will ultimately be unable to create social change.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

#IsraelLoves And The Shortcomings Of Hasbara

Yesterday's conference call with Avi Mayer hosted by The Israel Project (TIP) is an example of the shortcomings of contemporary Israeli public relations, or hasbara.  For his part, Mayer is a respected pro-Israel Twitter user, even by those outside the pro-Israel community.  He boasts 4,754 followers (including this blogger) and his comments yesterday were intended largely to encourage pro-Israel activists to use social media.

In particular, TIP touted Mayer's role in the #IsraelLoves campaign in which pro-Israel activists added the text "#IsraelLoves" to their tweets as a search tag which other users on Twitter could find, and which Twitter would recognize as a trending topic. TIP wrote:

"In December 2011, following the appearance of an orchestrated wave of anti-Israel sentiment, Avi initiated the #IsraelLoves campaign, encouraging social media users to share positive messages about Israel utilizing the popular social media platform Twitter." 

Overall, the #IsraelLoves campaign was an example of good public relations.  Responding to the #IsraelHates hashtag which was trending globally, Mr. Mayer led the pro-Israel community in responding with a concise and positive message which was well formulated to go viral.  While some of the tweets using the hashtag were hijacks (ie #IsraelLoves apartheid, or #IsraelLoves occupation), the #IsraelLoves campaign was a powerful one for which Mayer deserves credit.

But The Israel Project summarized the success of the campaign as follows:

"Participants in the campaign ultimately included Israeli government ministers and officials, Jewish organizational leaders, members of Knesset, celebrities, IDF officers, Jewish students, Israeli diplomatic missions and countless others."

That is to say, the hashtag was successful because it created a unified response to anti-Israel messages in which pro-Israel supporters around the world were joined together in advocacy on behalf of the Jewish State.

The problem is this: that metric of success has everything to do with the unity of the pro-Israel community.  And nothing to do with swaying general public attitudes towards Israel.

Hasbara efforts are always intended to shore up support for Israel.  However, creating a hasbara message often involves negotiating the cleavages in the pro-Israel community, even within the more traditional wing from which hasbara tends to originate.  The pro-Israel community is hardly alone in being an advocacy group with cleavages.  However, crafting a hasbara message often involves negotiating these cleavages, especially since the alternative is to have no message at all.

But the pitfall of this consensus building is that it creates a hasbara message which is a statement of the median pro-Israel view, rather than a message which is likely to sway reconcilable audiences to support Israel.  Hasbara has become about building consensus in the pro-Israel community rather than expanding it.  It reinforces the pro-Israel audience's self confidence and aggravates the pro-Palestinian audience, but does little to sway neutral audiences Israel's way.  Hasbara has become a series of messages preaching to the choir rather than trying to convince those with a decent voice to join.

The Israel Project is in no way alone in defining success by unity rather than efficacy.  Furthermore, consensus (or equilibrium) is a pre-requisite of any number of decisions within institutions.  But when pro-Israel organizations focus too much on a consensus-based approach to messaging, they sometimes lose sight of what ought to be the key metric of success: whether the message makes people more supportive of Israel.

One way to measure efficacy would be to conduct flash polls before and after a hasbara campaign to measure whether a given tactic improved Israel's image in the public eye.  But while many pro-Israel organizations point to consensus-building in the pro-Israel community as proof of their efficacy, very few offer quantitative evidence that their brand of hasbara has a significant effect on pro-Israel attitudes.  This is not because pro-Israel organizations are myopic or don't care about being effective.  Such measurements are incredibly difficult to obtain, especially for organic campaigns like #IsraelLoves.  However, in the absence of such data, pro-Israel donors are investing money and pro-Israel activists are investing time into a hasbara strategy which has not been demonstrated, in any systematic way, to work.

Unity has its place in movements, and the pro-Israel movement is no exception.  However, when the form of the movement begins to overshadow its purpose, it is unsurprising when it does not achieve its desired outcomes.  A renewed focus on efficacy-based approaches is the first step to properly resourcing the members of the pro-Israel community who have dedicated their careers to the defense and promotion of the Jewish State.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

MENA Tweeps, Relax About The Mideast UFO

Discussion on Twitter at the moment about a rocket of unknown origin visible throughout the Middle East is a case study in the pros and cons of social media as a tool of analysis.  If the goal is preliminary and largely baseless speculation, social media is excellent.  In the 24/7 media environment, it's a fast way to compare notes instantly with a global community.

However, in this constant tidal wave of breaking news, we almost never go back and examine our assumptions and predictions.  The intention of this post is not to discuss the "Mideast UFO," which at the moment appears to have been a Russian ICBM test.  Rather, it's about the settlement bill yesterday.  Keep reading, the UFO discussion will be there when you are done.

The split which has emerged in the Likud party over yesterday's settlement vote is an important development in Israeli politics and has its origins in factors which were entirely present before the vote.  That MKs in Likud supported legalizing settlement outposts was a known fact when the new coalition formed last May.  That there are differences of opinion between the strategic PM Netanyahu and more hardline members of his party was known.  

And yet there was no major speculation on social media when this coalition formed that it would split the Likud party on settlements.   In the sea of major speculative pieces on newspaper websites and blogs which appeared in the following days, only Tovah Lazaroff and Michael Kaplow's pieces referenced the internal Likud tension over settlements.  In the wake of the news of a coalition, there was a sense of shock in what political science might call the epistemic community and what social media enthusiasts might call MENA Tweeps.  There was plenty of speculation to go around, but only a thimble-full of analysis that sufficiently explains the first major coalition vote.

Why did the internal splits in the Likud not manifest themselves in the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition, but did so in the Likud-Kadima coalition?  Why were MKs like Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely empowered by a lack of support from Likud's coalition partner?  More broadly (read: political sciencey), do unity governments enable splits within parties?  Do these cleavages have an impact on policy outcomes?  Under what conditions are such cleavages most likely?

Obviously, expecting journalists and analysts to stop following breaking news and unpack these extremely complex questions is unreasonable.  However, a better relationship between the conversations of political science and the conversations of the foreign policy world as a whole would be a way to better address the lack of attention these important questions are receiving.  This goes not only for the esoteric questions but the more policy-relevant ones as well.  Political science should think more about the relationship between the variable-based social science it does, and its relevance to current debates.  In return, the foreign policy community should not be quick to write off political science in favor of Middle East UFOs.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Settlement Vote Fractures Likud

PM Netanyahu's new coalition is being put to the test after a bill to legalize the Ulpana outpost failed to pass the Knesset today.  The bill garnered 69 votes against and 22 in favor out of a total 120 members of Knesset.  While Netanyahu won the vote without fracturing his coalition, his party now faces serious internal tension which may very well get worse.

The bill was mired in controversy from the start.  The Prime Minister opposed the bill out of the desire to project government sovereignty into the West Bank.  Settlers in Ulpana, Migron, and elsewhere attempt to circumvent the legal process for founding settlements in Israel.  However, such actions weaken the government's control over the Israeli population of the West Bank, exacerbate already poor relations with the Palestinian Authority, and draw international scrutiny.  Netanyahu chose to oppose the bill given the importance of government control in the West Bank.

To some extent, today's vote was a success for the Prime Minister and his centrist coalition.  The far right's open disdain of Netanyahu's position made little difference in the overwhelming failure of the bill.  Netanyahu also successfully enforced party discipline by threatening to fire any minister who voted in favor of the plan.  

The cost of this hostility, however, was to empower more conservative members of the Prime Minister's own party.  In the wake of the vote, Likud has fractured on the settlement issue.  The shock of a new unity coalition last month called the conservative posture of the coalition into question.  More conservative Likud MKs were able to play on this concern by far-right constituents today.  They defied their own party leader and voted in favor of the bill.  These MKs include major voices in the Likud party such as Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely who stand significantly to the right of the prime minister.  Yesterday, MK Hotovely opined that Netanyahu may join the centrist Kadima party.  This statement is a sharp rhetorical attack on the Prime Minister's lifelong conservative credentials and calls him out on his more centrist stance today.  As the Netanyahu administration makes further settlement policy, these popular and far-right MKs will be a substantial threat to the Prime Minister's policy objectives.  Overall, this internal dissent may pose a larger threat to the Prime Minister's agenda than the formal bargaining between parties which is part of Israeli coalition politics.

Thus, while Netanyahu's move to a unity coalition ultimately avoided a split between parties, it created a serious cleavage within them.  His plan to build an additional 551 housing units in existing approved settlements may have bought some party discipline, but has done little to assuage the salience of opposition attacks.  As an added concern, the plan has drawn criticism from the United States which has avoided talking about settlements since a spat between President Obama and Netanyahu on the issue.  

In future rounds of policymaking on settlements, the Prime Minister is likely to face even louder opposition, especially if he attempts to balance the demands of Kadima, which now has a precedent in today's vote, with the demands of far right nationalist parties.  Kadima stayed largely silent on today's bill but will only be more vocal over time, especially if Netanyahu veers to the right as he will almost certainly be forced to do in the next round.  While the Prime Minister is not to be underestimated, he faces a settlement policy fight that may be his most difficult balancing act yet.