Voice

WikiLeaks and the Arab public sphere

I expect to delve into the substance of the WikiLeaks cables over the next few days -- I've been flagging noteworthy ones on Twitter all afternoon, and will keep doing so as I go along, and I will blog at greater length about specific issues as they arise. But I wanted to just throw some quick thoughts out there now after reading through most of the first batch. My initial skepticism about the significance of this document leak, fueled by the lack of interesting revelations in the New York Times and Guardian reports, is changing as I see the first batch of cables posted on WikiLeaks itself.

I don't think that there's going to be much revision of the American foreign policy debate, because most policy analysts have already heard most of what's in the cables, albeit in sanitized form. The cables still generally confirm the broad contours of what we already knew: many Arab leaders are deeply suspicious of Iran and privately urged the U.S. to attack it, for instance, but are afraid to say so in public. I haven't seen anything yet which makes me change any of my views on things which I study -- the cables show Arab leaders in all their Realpolitik and anti-Iranian scheming. I never thought that Arab leaders didn't hate Iran, only that they wouldn't act on it because of domestic and regional political constraints and out of fear of being the target of retaliation, and that's what the cables show. I'll admit that I'm finding a wealth of fascinating details filling in gaps and adding information at the margins. Nobody who follows regional politics can not be intrigued to hear Hosni Mubarak calling Iranians "big fat liars" or hearing reports of the astoundingly poor policy analysis of certain UAE royals. This will be a bonanza to academics studying international relations and U.S. foreign policy comparable to the capture of Iraqi documents in 2003 (I wonder what norms will evolve about citations to these documents, which the U.S. government considers illegally released?).

But, as Issandr el-Amrani pointed out earlier today, the real impact may well be in the Arab world, where rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret. The Arab media thus far is clearly struggling to figure out how to report them, something I'll be following over the next week. One of the points which I've made over and over again is that Arab leaders routinely say different things in private and in public, but that their public rhetoric is often a better guide to what they will actually do since that reflects their calculation of what they can get away with politically. Arab leaders urged the U.S. to go after Saddam privately for years, but wouldn't back it publicly for fear of the public reaction. It's the same thing with Iran over the last few years, or with their views of the Palestinian factions and Israel. But now those private conversations are being made public, undeniably and with names attached.

So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?

Now those are interesting questions.

UPDATE: thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints. Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the "Arab street". So far, the only real story I've seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan's Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

What if they don't solve Israeli-Palestinian borders in 90 days?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading back to Israel with an offer from the Obama administration of a large basket of incentives in exchange for a 90-day extension of a settlement freeze. The reported contours of the administration's offer include 20 free advanced F-35 fighter jets and assorted promises to defend Israel at the U.N. and other international fora (which meets Israeli fears but in reality would almost certainly be forthcoming under any foreseeable circumstances). In exchange, Israel would renew its partial settlement freeze for 90 days. During that period, the Israelis and Palestinians are to go back to the bargaining table and (reportedly) concentrate on sketching out an agreement on borders, which would generate progress and reduce the risk of future battles over settlements.

It's easy to be skeptical. The United States seems to be giving a lot for a temporary fix which only kicks the can down the road another few months, while neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem to see this as a moment of opportunity. The deal only makes sense if serious progress on reaching agreement on borders can be made in three months. But the three months in question include Thanksgiving, the Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, and the seating of the new U.S. Congress. Even if the parties have already sketched out the contours of the deal -- and I sure hope they did that spadework before committing themselves to such a high-stakes deadline, though I'm kind of afraid that they didn't -- experience suggests that getting that deal through the Israeli and Palestinian systems won't be easy. Since the United States promises not to ask for another extension, the 90-day deadline gives all kinds of incentives for those who don't really want a deal to stall. Oh, all right… I'm skeptical.

The attraction of the "borders first" approach is obvious. If it works, then there would finally be some real progress for the first time in ages, some confidence might be built between the parties, and the endlessly recurring settlement battles might be put in the cooler for a while. But the issues there haven't changed much since the last time the gambit was floated more than a year ago. It will be difficult to reach any kind of agreement on borders without tackling the vexatious issue of Greater Jerusalem -- not the Old City, but the sprawling metropolitan area that includes significant portions of the central West Bank (here's a nice map, for those who haven't looked at one lately). The Israeli move last week to escalate construction in East Jerusalem was a pretty clear warning shot that both the settlement freeze agreement and any 'borders first' deal would exclude the Jerusalem area. That's going to be a problem, and it's hard to see how it can be avoided.

I hope that those problems can be overcome, but count me among the skeptics. The deal seems to epitomize the unimaginative, tactics-focused U.S.e approach that has dominated the administration's Israeli-Palestinian strategy. Where President Obama set out sweeping goals and offered a deep and sustained commitment to seeking peace, the execution of his strategy immediately bogged down. The problem is not that he chose to fight a battle over settlements, as conventional wisdom has now concluded -- that was the right battle to choose, as an indicator of Israeli intentions and as a signal to the Palestinians of U.S. seriousness. The problem isn't even entirely that he lost that battle, as damaging as that was to U.S. credibility and strategy, since even a losing battle demonstrated Obama's willingness to pay costs to achieve the goal.

The problem is deeper than that -- it's the lack of imagination and tactical focus that have doomed the administration to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The administration's approach thus far has been to keep trying harder at the same things that were tried by the Bush administration and, before that, by the Clinton administration. Try to get the two parties to the negotiating table. Try to force Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze. Try to contain the fallout when Netanyahu responds by announcing construction in East Jerusalem. Try to persuade the Palestinians to come back to the table. Try to strengthen the Fayyad government and try to help build Palestinian security services. Try to pretend that Gaza doesn't matter. Try to persuade the Arab states to offer some positive concessions to Israel to reward any glimmer of good behavior. Try to keep the 'peace process' moving forward no matter what. Repeat. And repeat.

Three examples, which don't get addressed through this narrow, tactical approach to the 'peace process,' might illustrate the broader issues. First, it was clear by spring 2009 that the push for peace faced a range of clear problems, which couldn't be addressed through the usual diplomatic moves. It was clear by then that the Israeli public and political class had largely lost interest in the peace process and wasn't sure whether to trust Obama. But while the administration did eventually try to repair relations with Netanyahu and intensified its political, military and intelligence consultations with the Israelis (in large part to reassure them enough on Iran to prevent them from going Goldberg), it has made little serious effort to try to build support for the peace process among the Israeli public.

Second, the paralyzing effects of intra-Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and between the West Bank and Gaza, have long been obvious, but nothing has been done to try to overcome those divisions -- if anything, the United States and its Arab allies, such as Egypt, have evidently continued to block efforts at intra-Palestinian reconciliation. And Palestinian politics today remain as fractured and internally riven as ever, even as anger over Gaza smolders, the remnants of the PA's democratic legitimacy fade away, and faith in a negotiated peace agreement withers.

Third, the rising salience of the battles over the "delegitimation" of Israel suggests that events may simply be overtaking the formal peace process. From the frenzy over the Goldstone report to the frenzy over the Mavi Marmara flotilla, the most urgent battles surrounding Israel's relationship with the Palestinians seem to have little to do with the formal peace process upon which U.S. strategy focuses. Those international ideological battles largely focus on Gaza, which is virtually completely left out of the peace process as currently defined.

Nobody can doubt the administration's deep and enduring commitment to trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president has paid significant domestic and international costs for his efforts. His administration has persevered impressively in the face of considerable pressure to back away and despite few tangible benefits from U.S. involvement in the issue. His administration has done everything possible to demonstrate its support for Israel even as it continues to insist that achieving a peace agreement is a vital U.S. national security interest. I hope that this push for a borders first deal on a three-month deadline works, and then galvanizes a more comprehensive drive for a comprehensive, just final status peace agreement. I really do. If it doesn't, then perhaps it will be time to consider a new approach rather than just trying harder at the same things.