Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Language and the Middle East 'peace' talks

Readers of this Web site are by now aware that an issue I keep revisiting is that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly as a result of my past profession but also because how the media reports on it epitomizes how language creates our reality, something that has long been an interest of mine. Another reason why I often come back to this particular conflict is that, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt so aptly put it in their quite useful The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, as a purported Western democracy, Israel should be judged by higher moral standards than the supposed “radicals” and “extremists” and “terrorists” who oppose it.

The fact that it is not, that the media and the Jewish state’s Western allies continue to give it a moral carte blanche no matter what, underscores the reason why the new round of “peace” talks in Annapolis is, as the Palestinian “radicals” put it, “doomed to failure.”

The Associated Press wire agency, whose reporting I have dissected in previous postings, continues to systematically editorialize its news on the conflict. As AP is carried by newspapers the world over and its credibility assumed by most, how it represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to influence — oftentimes subconsciously — people’s understanding of the issue. AP’s bias, constant though it is, doesn’t stem from a Zionist plot or a deliberate attempt to demonize Palestinians. Rather, it is symptomatic of a Western way of storytelling, in which there must be a “good” party and a “bad” one. The latter has all the mysteriousness and irrationalism of religion and violence attached to it, the “unknown” that creates fear among the civilized “us.”

A perfect example of this can be found in AP’s coverage of the demonstrations yesterday against the Middle East "peace" conference in Annapolis. The story, datelined Gaza City, opens with “Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip demonstrated Tuesday against the Middle East peace conference in the US,” then spends the next 25 of 27 paragraphs describing Palestinian violence, threats of the “destruction of Israel” by Hamas and crowds chanting “death to America,” and so on.

Only the last two paragraphs — two out of the story’s total 28 — describe Israeli opposition to the peace talks, stating that “[m]ore than 20,000” Israelis gathered to demonstrate against the talks and that “hard-line” (a more neutral term that also conveys a sense of being part of the ‘acceptable’ political spectrum) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had “denounced” the conference.

The imbalance could not be any more stark. Ninety-two point five percent of the story focuses on “militants” using “vitriolic” language to attack the “peace” talks, even quoting a 37-year-old Palestinian mother of eight, “[d]ressed in a black robe and black and green headband,” (again, sustaining the image of the unknown, which otherwise does not serve any journalistic purpose) who adds that the failure of the talks “will be an advantage for the resistance.” Only 7.5 percent of AP’s report addresses Israeli opposition to the talks, and furthermore readers are given a more precise number of demonstrators — more than 20,000 — than what we are told about Palestinians, which is no more precise than in the “tens of thousands,” a convenient quantity blur that encourages the view of swarms of irrational Palestinians against the more scientific, knowable Israelis.

Why couldn’t AP open its story with a Jerusalem dateline and represent the two demonstrations with more balance, perhaps by quoting Israelis who use a language of intolerance as "radical” as that used by the Palestinians quoted in the story? By failing to do this and by disproportionately reporting on Palestinian demonstrations, the latter are once again portrayed as opposing peace. If and when the talks in Annapolis fail — for they will — it will once again be the Palestinians who are blamed, irrespective of the fact that it is quite apparent that, like all its predecessors, the Israeli leadership is coming to the negotiating table less than willing to make the concessions that would open the way for a viable Palestinian state.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

‘Brothers so sorely tired’

The Red Cross and the Red Crescent estimate that 900,000 Bangladeshi families are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance and that between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed by Cyclone Sidr last week (at this writing, the official death toll stands at above 3,000). On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for international solidarity and to “help these brothers so sorely tired.” Given the severity of the situation, one would think that Dhaka is hardly in a position to turn down assistance from anyone who offers.

And yet, that is just what it did.

It is true that numerous countries, including the US, Japan, China, Canada, Kuwait, Germany and the EU, have already either sent aid or have promised to do so, and some, like Saudi Arabia, have made well-publicized offers of not insubstantial amounts of money for relief assistance, while the Islamic Conference has called on its 57-member body to send urgent aid. All must have been welcomed with open arms by Bangladeshi authorities.

Taiwan, too, has offered aid, via its representative office in Dhaka, but Bangladeshi authorities have refused to acknowledge the offer, giving as a reason the fact that the two countries do not have official diplomatic ties — the usual euphemism for one’s reluctance to deal with Taiwan because of the likelihood that doing so would anger the backdoor bully Beijing (China has pledged US$1 million in emergency assistance to Bangladesh).

Although this time round Taiwan’s offer came via Taiwan International Health Action, a governmental organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than through NGOs — thus making accepting the offer a little more complicated — one would think that in a time of great need such as now, capitals would put politics aside and genuinely focus on the needs of their people. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case and a wealthy country in a good position to offer immediate help when it is needed most — now, when lives can be saved — is being told to stay home.

History has taught us that pledges of humanitarian aid following a natural catastrophe rarely translate into the full sum promised, and oftentimes the bureaucratic process adds layers of red tape — and precious days — to the actual delivery of aid on the ground. In other words, the millions of dollars that countries have pledged in recent days will not all end up where they are needed, and some of that help will arrive late. As such, there is no such a thing as too much on offer, and all help should be welcome.

I’m pretty sure Bangladeshis wouldn’t mind Taiwanese money, blankets or food and would probably even risk Beijing’s "wrath" when everything around them has been turned into a devastation zone, or “a valley of death,” as one relief worker put it, with water-borne diseases and the promise of more deaths lurking just on the horizon.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Our moral nakedness: a response

Adar Primor’s piece in the Nov. 6 edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz does a good job analyzing the underlying strategy of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) bid to join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan.” Primor is fully aware that Chen’s chances of success in this endeavor are, at least on the surface, rather quite slim, as Taiwan is confronted to the harsh realities of Realpolitik and “international hypocrisy.”

Beyond the attempt itself, however, Primor sees a second — and perhaps even more important — bid to expose the moral nakedness of the international community, which continues to deny “the freest country in Asia” the place it deserves under the sun. Primor spares no one; the US, European countries, even Israel, the author says, have been “going with the flow,” meaning that China’s lure trumps the so-called “shared” values that, as he rightly puts it, are by no means reflected in the Chinese leadership.

Sadly, the author concludes with a flawed analogy by comparing Taiwan with Israel, “two small and effervescent ‘real democracies’ engaged in their own security-existential troubles, exposed to threats from a huge external enemy and dependent on American protection and aid.” Foreign editor at Haaretz, a newspaper with a long, enviable tradition of even-handed reporting on Israeli politics (see Amira Haas’ clear-eyed columns on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, for example), Primor should know better than to equate Taiwan’s struggle for survival with Israel’s, as the “David of the Far East,” as he puts it, does not face “a huge external enemy” because of its long history of colonialism and military adventurism, at least not since dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) left the scene.

Unlike Israel, Taiwan does not threaten its neighbors, does not invade their airspace or bomb capital cities back to the stone age. Nor does it hold millions hostage in Apartheid-like submission — all misguided policies that (a) most Israelis do not agree with and (b) are largely responsible for that “huge external enemy” in the first place. Beijing denies the very existence of Taiwan; most Arabs do not deny Israel’s right to exist and those who do certainly do not have the means to bring about such a reality. If it wanted, Beijing could raze Taiwan to the ground (It would help if Israel stopped selling military technology to China). Conversely, given its tremendous military (largely the result of US “carte blanche” military transfers and billions in annual aid, as well as its nuclear arsenal), it is Israel, what with its unconditional support from Washington, that is in a position, if it wanted, to annihilate its enemies — not the other way around.

What this means, therefore, is that no policy “correction” on Taipei’s part would bring about a cessation of hostilities. No matter what it does, Beijing will continue to threaten it — at least as long as it struggles for sovereignty. With a corrective in how it manages its conflict both with Palestinians and its neighborhood, Israel can appease “Goliath,” fix its “security-existential struggle” and sideline the remaining lunatics who call for its destruction.

Primor’s piece is a most welcome one that shows Chen’s efforts to publicize Taiwan’s cause are not in vain. But by conflating Taiwan’s struggle with that of Israel, sadly, he undermines the power of his argument.

In fairness to the author, I subsequently learned that the “David of the Far East” analogy was picked up by Mr. Primor during his interviews with Taiwanese and, furthermore, that it is often used by Chinese-language media in Taiwan. As I argue above, this analogy not only misinterprets the roots of Israel's security challenge but, ironically, misrepresents the underlying causes of Taiwan's predicament.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

To war, one step at a time

The timing of the Interpol general assembly voting on whether to put five Iranians and a Lebanese on “red” notice — the international police agency’s “most wanted” list — suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (seen left) could not be more conspicuous, coming as it does at a time when the US and some of its allies are putting unprecedented pressure on Tehran to cease its alleged military nuclear work. Despite Interpol’s assertion that the decision to vote on the matter was not, as Tehran alleges, the result of pressure from Washington (or Israel), one wonders why the agency, which has had 13 years since the bombing, would decide to act now, knowing fully well that doing so will only add fuel to an already dangerously unstable political brew.

To its merit, Tehran decided to abandon trying to block the vote, but irrespective of that decision, the vote confronts it to a lose-lose situation, in which (a) refusal would give the impression it is trying to hide something, that it supports terrorism or is simply a “rogue” international actor, while (b) the responsibilities attendant to the “red” notices could result in pressure to arrest or hand over the suspects in Iran (although states are not obligated to do so).

Whether the decision to hold the vote (a majority suffices) was indeed the result of political pressure remains to be determined, but regardless, its timing could not have been worse. Not only will this further isolate Iran at a time when it needs to be embraced, but the sixth suspect, Imad Mugniyeh (right), also happens to have intimate ties to the Lebanese Hezbollah, an ally and sometimes proxy of Tehran. Given the instability in Lebanon — fueled by the US/Israel/Syrian power play there as well as internal sectarian fault lines — pressure on the Lebanese government to hand over Mugniyeh (although he is unlikely to be in Lebanon) or on Iran to do so would inevitably result in linkage and thereby render both the Iranian "nuclear" problem and the Lebanese one all the more unsolvable.

By accident or design, independent decision or one brought about by pressure, the decision at this specific point in time to target those six suspects takes us ever closer, down the long succession of small things adding up, to war with Iran.