The Battlefield of New Media: The Online War Over Gaza

Al Jazeera has an interesting article up about the online war over Gaza. Both pro-Palestinian and Israeli forces attempted to use new media, both through official and grassroots channels.

On December 27, 2008, Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’ against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Within minutes of the first missile landing in Gaza, global reactions appeared online.

During the first few days of the war, online discussions were restricted to war of words. Both sides engaged in heated debates and blamed each other for the fatal surge in military operations.

As the discussions grew, attempts were then made by supporters of both sides to establish a coordinated response aimed at combatting the other side’s propaganda.

With this awareness in mind, both Israel and the Palestinians resorted to a variety of media platforms to justify their positions and tactics used during the conflict.

Israeli supporters set up the Help Us Win website, and some Palestinian supporters created Gaza Talk.

Hundreds of groups were created on Facebook by Israelis and Palestinians to create an awareness of the facts as they saw them.

I have a hunch that this change supported the Palestinians more than the Israelis. Anecdotally, this conflict seemed to garner a much different tone of coverage from the mainstream media (read: not rabidly anti-Palestinian), and I wonder if the rise of new media voices in the US (especially the many critical and influential Jewish voices in the progressive blogosphere) and abroad had anything to do with it.

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Negotiation is the first step towards peace

Yesterday I wondered whether the incoming Obama administration would be able to maintain the realist/Clintonista/Obamanaut coalition of foreign policy operatives on difficult questions like the situation in Gaza. The apparent appointment of Richard Haass as Middle East envoy is the first step towards a more pragmatic, even handed role in the crisis (it could have been Clinton era negotiator Dennis Ross). Haass has had sensible things to say about the US’ role in the Middle East more generally, and I believe he understands the importance of strategic leadership in a post-unipolar world. Of even greater interest to the potential for a solution to the conflict is the possibility of negotiations with Hamas, who must be satisfied for any ceasefire agreement to have lasting effect. According to the Guardian:

The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush’s ­doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency’s ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The article goes on to explain that the administration won’t give Hamas diplomatic status or hold high level talks. But  merely recognizing and engaging with Hamas could eventually prove to be a move towards reconciliation, and is a useful first step in the path towards a lasting peace. The situation in Gaza is in some ways analogous to the financial collapse: the collapse of current policy could provide political cover to finally make the sacrifices to move the world in a more positive long term direction. I hope the Obama administration will start to bring Hamas into the international community, just as was done with the PLO, and give credence to the complaints of the Palestinian people.

In doing so, Obama should embrace and extend the non-military aspects of Bush’s democracy promotion in the Middle East. Bush was committed to democracy in name only, and was not truly willing to accept the will of the people in instances where Islamist governments won free and fair elections. However, the US, and the West more generally, would be making a grave strategic mistake if they fail to accept the inclusion of Islamist parties in government, and will do much more harm than good by seeking to marginalize all Islamist groups. Hamas won a free and fair election to represent the Palestinian people and were immediately opposed by Israel, the US and the international community. This was a mistake from the start, and the Palestinian civil war, and the War on Gaza are the direct result of this decision.

What I am advocating here may sound radically pro-Palestinian, but I actually think of myself as a Zionist who wishes to see the continuation of a majority Jewish state in the Middle East. I believe the only way to reconcile my traditionally liberal political beliefs and my desire for a majority Jewish state is the creation of a stable, viable, Palestinian state that provides the Palestinian people with the autonomy and resources to create a future for themselves. The US must recognize the importance of the creation of a vibrant Palestinian state for the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state. Furthermore, we should recognize that any organization that legitimately represents the Palestinian people will express resistance to what the Palestinians view (as does most of the rest of the world) as a occupation by a foreign power. The current conflict will only solidify Palestinian feelings of injustice and powerlessness, and strengthen groups like Hamas that prey off the anger that ensues.

The US must be tough and fair with the Israelis – but also with the Palestinians. This means recognizing that Hamas is the most legitimate broker of the Palestinian agenda – an agenda that must be reckoned with. However, bringing Hamas to the table doesn’t mean acceding to their demands. The US should overwhelm the potential resistance to a peace deal by offering terms that would make Hamas look foolish for refusing. We could do this by pledging to underwrite a peace keeping force that would be responsible for maintaining preliminary international boundaries, while negotiations for a final agreement were underway. The terms of the final agreement will, for political and policy reasons, look something like the Arab Peace Initiative, and include an agreement with Syria.

Of course, the path I am outlining is a bold one, and will require an extreme amount of care taken towards solidifying Israeli public opinion. There are an incredible number of potential obstacles to this path, not the least of which is domestic American political opposition to the move towards peace by a right wing, Likud affiliated US pro-Israel lobby. However, after eight years of languishing without any hope of movement towards a lasting peace, any change in policy, not matter how slight, could be the first step in a forging a new path in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ah, there it is again: Hope! Change! In these halcyon days of transition from the administration that is the originator of all evils to the administration That Can, we (I?) can project any and all actions as a move towards the ideal policy.

Yes we might!

The Coalition of the Sensible

There is an emerging foreign policy consensus between all non-neoconservative factions that the US must reengage with the rest of the world and move towards relying more on soft power. This shift can be seen, ironically, in the appointments of Jim Jones as NSA, Hillary Clinton as SoS, and Robert Gates at DoD, as they all agree on the reinsertion of diplomacy and strategic political engagement in national secuirty policy. There is plenty to say (and others have already said much) about this emerging coalition, but I wonder what issues will cause disagreement between realists, Clinton era foreign policy hands, and the Obama team (to the extent they aren’t one of the previous two). The new national security team will face a real test in the ongoing Gaza situation, and no one quite knows how they will react.

Obamas National Security Team

Obama's National Security Team

If this article by Aaron David Miller is any indication, there is a tantalizing political opportunity for this coalition to pursue bold leadership on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. From Newsweek:

The departure point for a viable peace deal—either with Syria or the Palestinians—must not be based purely on what the political traffic in Israel will bear, but on the requirements of all sides. The new president seems tougher and more focused than his predecessors; he’s unlikely to become enthralled by either of Israel’s two leading candidates for prime minister—centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, or Likudnik Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, if it’s the latter, he may well find himself (like Clinton) privately frustrated with Netanyahu’s tough policies. Unlike Clinton, if Israeli behavior crosses the line, he should allow those frustrations to surface publicly in the service of American national interests.

The issue at hand is to find the right balance in America’s ties with Israel. Driven by shared values and based on America’s 60-year commitment to Israel’s security and well-being, the special relationship is rock solid. But for the past 16 years, the United States has allowed that special bond to become exclusive in ways that undermine America’s, and Israel’s, national interests.

The peace process faces several daunting political obstacles: domestic political opposition in the US, the complexities of the upcoming Israeli election and the byzantine politics of competing Palestinian factions. But for the first time in a long time it seems mainstream American officials are arguing for the benefits of political leadership that will create a lasting peace. Obama’s team has the domestic political capital to create real change by breaking with the tradition of allow Israel to unilaterally dictate the terms of peace. The emergence of pro-Israel, pro-peace groups like Jstreet.org, who have been very active in support of a new ceasefire in Gaza, and the realignment of moderate realists towards a more dovish stance could finally give the US space to act as an honest broker in the region. This coalition may of the sensible could, hypothetically, create the justification for a leader in Israel to make Olmert’s acknowledgement of the need for Israeli concessions while they still have some political power.

Yes we might.