Monthly Archives: February 2008

Khaled Abu Toameh at Boston University

Khaled Abu Toameh is an Israeli-Arab journalist who currently writes for the Jerusalem Post and the U.S. News and World Report. An Arab-Muslim, he has been extremely critical of Hamas and the PLO, and has spoken his mind on the threat of extremist Islam.

Abu Toameh spoke today at Boston University. He said that both parties leading the Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah, are ‘bad guys’, contrary to Condoleeza Rice’s assertion that it is a struggle between good guys (Fatah) and bad guys (Hamas). He highlighted the fact that the Palestinians have gotten rid of Fatah in elections, and therefore, Abbas does not have any mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. Furthermore, he would not have the ability to implement any agreement, rendering negotiations with him futile.

IDF Anticipates Mass Palestinian March on Gaza Fence

Recently, IDF concerns over a Hamas-orchestrated mass march on the fence separating Israel and Gaza have grown stronger. Hamas would like to capitalize on its success in toppling the wall between Gaza and Egypt. But the situation here is quite different. Hamas does not control the kilometer leading up to the fence in Gaza, and would have great difficulty reaching the fence, let alone blowing a hole in it.

The fence around Gaza is not uniform. Most of the fence consists of a four-foot high barbed wire coil fence about fifty yards inside of Gaza, and a twelve-foot high sensory fence on the border. The area around the Erez crossing on the northern fence is a large concrete wall. There are many locked gates in the fence that do not have the barbed wire in front of them.

The IDF has fixed and mobile defense elements on the border. There are a series of two-story circular concrete structures called “pillboxes” every several hundred yards. Pillboxes usually have heavy machine guns observation equipment in them. There are also a series of cameras and listening devices along the border, manned 24/7 by highly trained female lookouts.

Study: Revenge Motivates Suicide Bombers

A study headed by Robert Brym, son of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, concluded that suicide bombers are not inspired by extreme poverty. This conclusion discredits the widespread belief that terror grows out of poverty and deprivation. As the argument goes, if the Palestinians’ wealth approached that of the Israelis, they would stop attacking Israeli civilians.

However, the study also downplayed the importance of religion in motivating suicide bombers. This conclusion is difficult to accept, given the specifically Islamic religious  terms that suicide bombers speak in on tapes before attacks and family members praise them in after.

The following article is from Haaretz.

TORONTO – In an extensive study of Palestinian suicide bombings, three University of Toronto researchers have concluded that the bombers were not psychologically unstable and were often motivated by personal vengeance, not religious zeal.

The study was carried out by political sociologist Robert Brym, with the assistance of two Ph.d students, Palestinian Bader Araj and Israeli Yael Maoz-Shai.
Writing in the academic journal Social Forces, Brym noted, “The organizers of suicide attacks don’t want to jeopardize their missions by recruiting unreliable people. It may be that some psychologically unstable people want to become suicide bombers, but insurgent organizations strongly prefer their cannons fixed.”

He also found that the suicide bombers did not experience extraordinary high levels of economic deprivation.

Furthermore, in his study published in Contexts, Brym concluded that a majority of bombers, like Palestinian female lawyer, Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, 29, who killed 21 civilians in a 2003 bombing at Maxim restaurant in Haifa, were “motivated by the desire for revenge and retaliation.”

Jaradat acted to avenge the killings of her brother, an Islamic Jihad militant, and cousin by Israeli security forces.

Brym concluded, “In its origins and at its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not religiously inspired, and suicide bombing, despite its frequent religious trappings, is fundamentally the expression of a territorial dispute.”

This reasoning is intellectually comfortable, because it leaves open the possibility for a full and comprehensive peace. But, upon thinking the logic forward, one uncovers its weakness. When Israel left Lebanon and Gaza, attacks only increased. Does anyone really believe that if Israel pulled back to the 1967 lines, motivation for attacking Israel would decrease significantly? Suicide bombings were not a phenomenon in the days of total Israeli control over Palestinian areas.

Brym and Araj identified the organizational affiliation of 133 out of 138 suicide bombers between September 2000 and July 2005. Sixty-four per cent were affiliated with Islamic fundamentalists groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while the rest were aligned with secular groups such as Fatah.

In analyzing data pertaining to Israeli counterterrorist operations, Brym said “we do know that of the nearly 600 suicide missions launched in Israel and its occupied territories between 2000 and 2005, fewer than 25 percent succeeded in reaching their target. Israeli counterterrorist efforts thwarted three-quarters of them using violent means.”

If he looked only at those attacks attempted after Defensive Shield, when Israeli tactics became more intense, the percentage of successful attacks would be far lower.

However, his study found that harsh repression can intensify bombings and prompt bombers to devise more lethal methods to achieve their aims.

“In general, severe repression can work for a while, but a sufficiently determined mass opposition will always be able to design new tactics to surmount new obstacles. One kind of ‘success,’ usually breeds another kind of ‘failure’ if the motivation of insurgents is high.” In an interview, Brym said: “I’m no fan of Hamas, but I believe that Israel and Hamas at some point have to sit and negotiate.”

In a paper to be published in Studies in Conflict on Terrorism this year, Araj concludes that harsh state repression “should not be perceived only as a reaction to suicide bombing” but “often precedes and is a major cause of suicide bombing.”

Mughniyeh Is Finally Killed- And Fisk Attacks Bush

Imad Mughniyeh, one of leading terrorist masterminds of our times, was killed by an unknown party last week. Perhaps by Israel, perhaps America, quite possibly another Arab terrorist group. Predictably, there were those who were not thrilled by the death a man responsible for hundreds of deaths of Westerners.

Old friend Robert Fisk took the opportunity to attack- who else – President Bush and compared the United States military to al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad.

Mougnieh, Lebanese by birth, was a man of frightening self-confidence, of absolute self-belief, something he shared with Osama bin Laden and – let us speak frankly about this – with President George W Bush. Islamic Jihad, it was said, tortured its enemies. So does al-Qa’ida. And so, as we all now know, does Mr Bush’s army.

Tom Gross’ analysis is here.

BBC reporter Humphrey Hawkesley said, “The army is on full alert as Lebanon remembers two war victims with different visions but both regarded as great national leaders.”

Don Mell, former AP photographer in Beirut, attacked the parallel, writing that

For you to refer to former prime minister Rafik Hariri and Imad Mughniyeh as ‘great national leaders’ in the same sentence is beyond belief. One was an elected leader who spent years and millions of his own money rebuilding his country. The other was probably the world’s second most notorious terrorist, who was responsible for, in addition to running a major criminal enterprise, destroying the US Embassy, the French and US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; the hijacking of TWA 847; the bombing of the Israeli cultural center in Buenos Aires, [and] the kidnapping and murder of many Westerners in Lebanon, including Terry Anderson, Terry Waite, John McCarthy.”

The BBC apologized, and said

“While there is no doubt that supporters of Hizbullah did regard Mughniyeh in such terms [as a great leader], we accept that the scripting of this phrase was imprecise. The description of Imad Mughniyeh should have been directly attributed to those demonstrating their support for him.”

Defeatist Reporting on Tet and on Iraq Colors Policy

The war in Iraq is often compared to Vietnam by critics. They see a direct parallel in Iraq to America’s experience in Vietnam. But there is a similarity that they do not realize, argues Arthur Herman in the February 6th issue of  The Wall Street Journal. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, the defeatist reporting of the mainstream media ignored the tangible tactical successes, and ultimately had a direct and primary influence on the outcome of the conflict in question. The media sees what it wants to see, and believes what it wants to believe, and those biases shape policy and perception back in America.

On January 30, 1968, more than a quarter million North Vietnamese soldiers and 100,000 Viet Cong irregulars launched a massive attack on South Vietnam. But the public didn’t hear about who had won this most decisive battle of the Vietnam War, the so-called Tet offensive, until much too late.

Media misreporting of Tet passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The Tet experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all U.S. military successes — such as the Petraeus surge — minimized and glossed over.

The Mystery of Hate: Can Pallywood have anything to do with it?

Yair Lapid, an Israeli columnist asked a long, painful, and highly relevant question. Why the hate? Not Palestinian hate, but Arab, Muslim? My attempt at the beginning of a answer aftewards.

The Mystery of Hate
by Yair Lapid

Hundreds of years of fighting, six and a half wars, billions of dollars gone with the wind, tens of thousands of victims, not including the boy who laid down next to me on the rocky beach of lake Karon in 1982 and we both watched his guts spilling out. The helicopter took him and until this day I do not know whether he is dead or survived. All this, and one
cannot figure it out.

And its not only what happened but all that did not happen – hospitals that were never built, universities that were never opened, roads that were never paved, the three years that were taken from millions of teenagers for the sake of the army. And despite all the above, we still do not have the beginning of a clue to the mystery of where it all started:

Why do they hate us so much?

Egypt Lays Bare the Reasoning behind Palestinian Suffering

In another remarkable article by Khaled abu Toameh, perhaps the best Arab journalist now practicing by Western standards, we find Hosni Mubarak, furious at the idea that his country might do a good deed by providing for their Palestinian brethren. The matter-of-fact way in which Mubarak asserts the logic — Israel must suffer no matter what the costs to the Palestinians — reveals just how implacable the hatreds. Mubarak is nowhere near the basic bar for even negotiating peace — love your own more than you hate your foes. Fine insight into the sources of Palestinian suffering. (Hat tip: fp) » Middle East Article
Feb 4, 2008 0:26 | Updated Feb 4, 2008 1:17

Egypt nixes Hamas call for alliance

Under pressure from Egypt, Hamas on Sunday backtracked from its call for economic disengagement from Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Photo: AP [file]
“Egypt has made it clear that it does not want to be responsible for providing the Gaza Strip with fuel and electricity,” a senior Hamas official in Gaza City told The Jerusalem Post. “They have informed us that the Gaza Strip must remain Israel’s problem.”

The talk about economic separation from Israel is said to have enraged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who expressed fear that such a move would increase pressure on him to assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

The idea, which has been welcomed by Israel, was first floated by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh over the weekend.

In remarks published by the Hamas-affiliated Falasteen newspaper, Haniyeh said that “Gaza must maintain stronger economic links with Egypt as a way of economic disconnection from Israel.” He said Hamas was seeking to disconnect the Strip’s economy from Israel and receive food, fuel and electricity from Egypt.

“We said during our election campaign in 2006 that we are seeking to move toward an economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation,” Haniyeh said. “Egypt has a greater ability to meet the needs of Gaza.”

And, if they weren’t possessed by their hatred of Israel to the point where they can’t stop bombing it, they might be able to take care of their own people a little better.


Then this Egypt-Gaza border could become the beginning of an economic development that might assist the standard of living of the inhabitants of North Sinai.

Haniyeh’s statements were later echoed by his top aide, Ahmed Youssef, who called on Egypt to assume its responsibilities toward the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip so that they would no longer have to rely on Israel.

However, the two Hamas leaders were forced to retract their statements after being severely reprimanded by top Egyptian government officials, the Hamas official in Gaza City said. The Egyptians are also reported to have threatened to cut off ties with Hamas and ban Hamas representatives from entering its territory.

In other words, when the Egyptians want to get their way, they know how to do it.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has also rejected Hamas’s proposal, warning that such a move would absolve Israel of its responsibilities toward the Palestinians in Gaza. The PA also warned that “bringing Egypt back into the Gaza Strip” would kill the Palestinians’ hope of establishing an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In other words, the PA and Egypt are on the same page: make the Israelis pay for the Palestinian suffering to which we (other Arab leaders) will contribute no solution unless it makes life impossible for the Israelis (independent state in West Bank and Gaza Strip combined). It looks like Hamas, under some international scrutiny (as a “democratically-elected” government), and increasingly squeezed by an Israel which cannot justify to itself feeding an enemy actively attacking it, seems to be the most pragmatic players at the moment.

But that too may be cognitive egocentrism. The PA and Egypt still use the “secular” discourse of Palestine and the Palestinians, whereas Hamas is a branch of the Muslim brotherhood. Their vision of future borders has no respect for the sovereignty of any of the political “entities” now in existence — Israel, Egypt, Jordan, “Palestine.”

Youssef denied that Hamas wanted to separate the Strip from the West Bank.

“The West Bank and Gaza Strip is one unified geographical unit,” he stressed. Explaining Hamas’s call for economic disengagement from Israel, he added: “What I was talking about was the need to change the situation where the Gaza Strip would continue to depend on economic aid from Israel. “We want to stop Israel from exploiting the economic situation to blackmail the Palestinians.”

“Blackmailing” them into stopping the Qassam attacks. What transparent language! How obscured by our media that downplay the Qassam dimension.

In this sense, Youssef’s pragmatism might run something like this: Look Egypt, we need this electricity and materiel to bomb the Israelis. They’ve finally wised up — what took the idiots so long? — and cut off our supplies. Now we need you to supply us so we can really give it to them. The Egyptians, on the other hand, don’t want a destabilized border; they just want to the Israelis to suffer, like some Promethean chained to a rock, with his liver constantly gnawed upon. And if that means the Gazans suffer… hey, it’s great publicity, no?

Youssef said the idea did not change the fact that the Gaza Strip “is still under Israeli occupation.” But, he added, “All we want is to breathe freedom, find jobs, develop agriculture and promote trade.”

Now that’s interesting. Is that really true? Then Hamas’ best bet would have been to work with the Israelis, who have a far more dynamic economy than the Egyptians. But let’s say his honor precludes so humiliating a cooperation. Still, is he speaking for a significant portion of the Gazan population (who surely exist) that remembers the “good old days” of before the Intifada, when Gaza’s economy, linked to Israel’s under “truce” conditions, is much missed? Or is he manipulating this discourse to get pipelines open so he and his colleagues can pursue war?

In return for abandoning the idea, the Egyptians have promised to consider giving Hamas a central role in managing the Rafah border crossing, sources close to Hamas said.

According to the sources, Egypt promised to raise the issue of Hamas’s participation in controlling the crossing with the US and some EU countries, as well as with Israel.

Uh oh.

“Our Egyptian brothers have promised to reopen the Rafah border crossing soon,” said Taher a-Nunu, spokesman for the Hamas government. “Our delegation to the Cairo talks [last week] reached an agreement with the Egyptians on the need to reopen the border crossing.”

Khalil Abu Lailah, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, said his movement was not opposed to the presence of forces loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the Rafah terminal. But, he continued, Hamas would not accept any deal that allowed Israel to have indirect control there.

“We’re prepared to control the border together with Abbas’s forces,” he said. “The border must be only under Palestinian-Egyptian control.”

Egypt said Sunday it would resist any fresh attempts by the Palestinians to breach its border with the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, Egyptian border guards closed the last gap in the border with the Gaza Strip, ending the 11-day influx of Palestinians into Egypt. Palestinians who watched the Egyptians reseal the border expressed outrage and vowed to continue their efforts to tear down the barriers.

Now there’s one of the paradigm-setting cases for 21st century political jurisprudence: the border between Egypt and Gaza. Let’s hope the Israelis figure out how to make their demands felt. The consequences of failure will be a necessity to invade later on when the wrong items make it into Gaza.

Berkeley City Council Urges Marines to Leave City

The City Council of Berkeley, California, has shocked the nation once again with its disrespect for the United States military. They passed a resolution by a vote of 8-1 telling the Marine Corps that they are unwelcome, and that they should move their recruitment center out of the city. In addition, the City Council waived the permit fee for Code Pink protesters, and gave them a permanent parking spot in front of the recruitment center. Let us not forget that Code Pink is the same organization that urges its members to protest with signs reading, “Military Predators out of our Community!”

Pentagon-Fired Expert’s Thesis on Jihad, Terrorism and Islamic Law

(The following is a close look at the thesis of Major Stephen Coughlin, prepared by LB with comments by RL)

The fact that Coughlin is being fired for pressing his approach to Islam — take Islam seriously in its own terms — illustrates what’s wrong with Western policy circles, even those whose primary role is our defense.

Major Stephen Coughlin is one of the Pentagon’s premier experts on Islamic law and Islamism. In March, he will become the Pentagon’s former expert. Reports coming from the Pentagon in the past month have indicated that after submitting his Master’s thesis, Coughlin was fired from the Joint Staff after he fell into the bad graces of Hasham Islam, a key aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. Islam and England have been aggressively reaching out to American Muslim groups, including the Islamic Society of North America, a group many critics call a front for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. During a meeting several weeks ago, Islam confronted Coughlin and called him “a Christian zealot with a pen.” The Pentagon decided that Coughlin was too controversial, and terminated his contract, effective this March.

The episode highlights intellectual weakness in the nation’s defense policy establishment and the influence of demopaths like Heshem Islam who is also a zealot with a pen who favors autobiographical fantasy. The Pentagon has apparently decided on an outlook that dictates that mainstream Islam stands for peace, that the Jihadi zealots represent a hi-jacking of the “true” religion, and will not countenance any evidence to the contrary. It also illustrates the way in which this “politically correct” approach acts as a form of cultural disarmament.

Coughlin’s recent 333 page Master’s thesis for the National Defense Intelligence College, entitled “To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad“, is well researched, well argued and fairly straightforward. That his recommendations are being sidelined makes one pessimistic about the direction of the intellectual underpinnings of U.S. defense policy.

Coughlin calls for a dispassionate analysis of the Jihadi threat. He argues that our enemies base their statements and actions in Islamic law, and use Islamic legal language, therefore our only way to seriously understand their motives and intentions is to listen to what they are saying and analyze it in the context of Islamic law.

According to Coughlin, it is irrelevant if Islam stands for peace or not. Even if most Muslims do not share the specifically Jihadist reading of Islam, Jihadi positions are grounded in mainstream Islamic law, and their language is rooted exclusively in Islamic terms. Coughlin calls the dominant contemporary intellectual approach the Current Approach what we at the Augean Stable call the PCP. The “Current Approach,” he argues, is useless because it refuses to acknowledge the doctrinal basis of the terrorists’ actions. Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the danger of ignoring our enemies’ declared intentions on The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq at the National Defense University on December 1, 2005:

Likewise, the nature of today’s jihadist enemies can only be understood within the context of their declared strategic doctrine to dominate the world. Just as we ignored Mein Kampf ” to our great detriment” prior to World War II, so we are on the verge of suffering a similar fate today.

Of course, that is a comparison that, according to the rules of political correctness, cannot be made. And not being able to make it is part of our cultural disarmament. We are not permitted to even imagine that we might have an enemy as ruthless and imperialist as the Nazis. Just as it would be an insult to all Germans to call them Nazis, so it would be an insult to all Muslims to call them Jihadis. But what if a similar dynamic was at work whereby a small but dynamic minority began to gain inordinate influence over the larger majority? Could we not talk about it? And should honest Muslims, like honest Germans, be throttling such a discussion because it offends them? Whose side are they on? That of decency, or Islam “right or wrong”?

Coughlin starts with fundamental questions that, if answered honestly, should lead to an accurate understanding of the threat.

Why have we failed to do a doctrine-based threat assessment?
What is the doctrinal basis of the jihadi threat?
How can we come to understand the jihadi threat?

The efforts to define the doctrinal basis to the Jihadi threats were hampered in the first days after 9/11 by President Bush’s adamant assertions that Islam is a religion of peace, and the extraordinary assertion (for an outsider) those who commit violence in the name of Islam misread their religious texts and law.

Following the catastrophic events of 9-11 when 19 Muslim men attacked U.S. targets for reasons associated with jihad in furtherance of Islamic goals, President George Bush made broad statements that held Islam harmless:
The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.

While there is little doubt the President made these comments to allay fears in the Muslim community while staring-down thoughts of vigilante justice in some circles, his statements exerted a chilling effect on those tasked to define the enemy’s doctrine by effectively placing a policy bar on the unconstrained analysis of Islamic doctrine as a basis for this threat.

There is a faulty assumption of an underlying cause for terrorism that has pervaded the thinking on the Jihadi threat. That assumption is that poverty and despair lead to terrorism, even when the facts stand against that conclusion.

As recently as 15 May 2007, from the same utterance in which he acknowledged that “it is true that terrorist leaders seem more often than not to come from middle-class backgrounds,” U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson counterfactually asserted that “most people would find it hard to argue against the idea that [the underlying cause of] terrorist violence arises, sociologically speaking, out of poverty, despair, hopelessness and resentment.”

The logic behind insisting on poverty as the source of terrorism is, like so much of PCP, a desire to have a solution we can implement: we [think we] know how to deal with poverty and getting rid of that is a good liberal goal, so kill two birds with one stone. But even some economists — who have every professional motivation to adopt this position — disagree.

And yet, the defense community apparently still does not understand the enemy’s motivation (transgressing against Sun Tzu’s cardinal rule, “Know Thy Enemy”), which comes entirely from Islamic doctrine. Before we can understand the enemy and predict his intentions, the U.S. planners must have a solid grasp of what the terrorists themselves say motivates them.

More than five years into the War on Terror (WOT) against a threat that defines itself in Islamic terms, the national security community does not understand the most basic Islamic doctrines that the enemy self-identifies as being its primary motivating factor.

In 2006, Republican congressional intelligence leaders could not explain any difference between Sunni and Shia in response to a reporter’s questions. When Democrats took over later that year, the situation was no better. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, Democratic Chairman of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence (and senior member of the Armed Services Committee), told the same reporter that al-Qaeda was predominantly Shia.

The “Current Approach” is characterized by two contradictory assertions, often made by the same individual- “Islam is a religion of peace” and “No one can say what Islam really stands for. There are a thousand ways to interpret Islam”. The intelligence establishment has a harmful practice of outsourcing crucial intelligence to experts who support the current approach and demand that the recipients of their expertise follow suit. Ironically, it’s as if the “Islamic experts” who adhere to the “Current Approach” get to inform the intelligence community on a “need to know basis.” Except that here, what we don’t know will hurt us.

Pallywood in Two Acts- Last Week in Gaza

Hamas’ manipulation of the international media to score PR points continues, becoming ever more brazen with each successful effort. They are becoming experts in the field, and they know it. This week was a perfect display of the propaganda skills that Hamas has acquired to augment its growing military capacity.

Act One was Hamas’ shutting off of power to Gaza City. Israel had reduced Gaza’s fuel supply in response to the tens of rockets Hamas fired daily from the Gaza Strip. Hamas saw an opportunity to embarrass Israel and set up Act Two, the mass exodus into Egypt. The media snatched up the narrative of innocent Gazan civilians sentenced to the dark and cold because of Israel’s ‘collective punishment’. In Monday’s Boston Globe, Page A3, or ‘The World” section, features a large picture of a pretty young Gazan woman washing dishes by the light of a kerosene lamp. The headline read “Power cut leaves Gaza City in the dark”, and the caption was “A woman used a lantern yesterday after electricity was cut in the Gaza Strip. The power cut sent beleaguered Gazans to stock up on food and batteries in anticipation of dark, cold days ahead. Gaza officials warned the move would cause a health catastrophe.” The half page article featured only seventy words explaining the Israeli side, that the blackout “is a Hamas ploy to pretend there is some kind of crisis to attract international sympathy.” The article reports that “Minutes later, residents started a candlelight march as a protest”, an obvious sign that the march was organized by Hamas to be done in coordination with the shutting off of the power. And the media fell for the march as well, featuring prominent photographs of Palestinian women and candles, civilly protesting against their cruel Israeli jailers.

Bad News Bears: Gerstenfeld and Colleagues Show How Bad Spin Works against Anyone

I just heard a talk from an American historian working on the history of “spin.” His conceptualization of the problem has me thinking about the phenomenon in new ways. I actually think that a history of spin might shed interesting light on the media coverage of the Middle East. It’s not that spin is bad, or even dishonest. One describes one’s house differently to the tax assessor from how one presents it to a prospective buyer, and there’s nothing necessarily dishonest about it — especially since both the assessor and the buyer know what you’re up to. But like all those checks we get at restaurants that have mistakes, if the errors are consistently in favor of the house, you know you’re up against something less than honest.

And spin is identifiable, possibly even quantifiable. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

    In public relations, spin is a sometimes pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one’s own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position.
    The techniques of “spin” include:

  • Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one’s position (cherry picking)
  • Non-denial denial
  • Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
  • Euphemisms to disguise or promote one’s agenda
  • Ambiguity
  • Skirting
  • Rejecting the validity of hypotheticals
  • Appealing to internal policies

None of these are outright dishonest. Everyone selects evidence; they have to. Most people assume unproven truths, often thinking them proven. Most people use euphemisms and ambiguity, and skirt difficult material, etc. By this definition it would be hard not to be accused of spin.

On the other hand, there are ways to determine just how heavy the spin, and how consistently it favors one side, as in Steve Erlanger’s journalism. Interestingly enough, the definition assumes that spin is “in favor of one’s side,” which raises the question: Why would journalists spin, and particularly why would they spin hard? Whose side are they on?

Again, I don’t have too much of a problem with journalists from civil societies who benefit from a culture that prizes and guarantees freedom of the press, spinning in favor of civic players, and against tyrants of various kinds. The real puzzle, as with Erlanger and so much of the Western press is why they so favor the most regressive elements in the Palestinian world.

In any case, I imagine that it would be possible to define, even quantify spin (e.g., leaving out significant details that any impartial reader/viewer might want to know in order to make an intelligent and informed judgment, like the data on Sderot without which one cannot undestand Israeli actions against Gaza). And if one tried to develop an impartial means of quantifying the data — never certain, but capable of giving a general sense of the tendencies — I think one would find that the media systematically spin against Israel, presenting negative news as often as possible. Indeed, if we were to give a scale to the degree of spin, one might find that their treatment approaches the level of “character assassination.”

Manfred Gerstenfeld, the indefatigable prober of anti-Israel sentiment, especially in Europe, but also in academia and the media, has launched an interesting project that gets at the core of this problem. By presenting negative news about other countries, he shows a number of important phenomena:

1) How easy it is to make a country look bad.
2) How little people like it when their country is portrayed in the media in so negative a light.
3) How rarely the media engage in the kind of character assassination when it comes to other democracies.

As Gerstenfeld noted in an earlier piece on his project:

The Dutch haven’t quite developed the thick skin that we have as Israelis to outside acrimonious criticism. Maybe that’s why the seminar is generating such interest there,” Gerstenfeld suggested. “And by successfully blackening Holland’s name despite its positive image abroad, we are demonstrating how easy it is to portray any country as a brutal police state.

When one realizes that a “moderate” Arab county will imprison its own academics for “tarnishing the image” of his own country, one can begin to understand how thin a skin some countries have. Again, the exceptional self-criticism of Israelis who are often proud to be ashamed of their country, skews the field and creates an epistemological confusion among outside observers who don’t understand how much the information they get is skewed by the profoundly different cultures from which it emanates.

Cnaan Liphshiz, who already wrote a piece on this project has a follow-up in today’s Ha-Aretz.


Bad News Bloggers bid to beat press bias
By Cnaan Liphshiz

What began six months ago as a brazen attempt to counter a perceived anti-Israel slant in the Dutch media, has evolved into a network monitoring the media in eight countries across the world. The idea is simple: Beat press bias at its own game by advertising only bad news about one place.

Over the past months, seven activists from Israel and elsewhere have been exposing online readers to scandalous yet accurate reports from media in Britain (violent drunk teens), France (high homeless mortality), Norway (serial child molesters), Finland (sexual harassment in parliament), Sweden (soaring suicide rates), The Netherlands (menacing Muslim unrest), Mexico (rampaging flood victims) and Los Angeles (drive-by killings).

The seven bad-news activists visit one another’s online blogs and have incorporated links referring the dozens of surfers who visit their pages every day to sister-sites. Though they all act out of a desire to counter what they see as media bias against Israel, they operate independently and have little communication with one another. Some of them rely on friends to send them interesting bits of bad news.

“This project demonstrates how media coverage can degrade any country’s image by using selective news without context,” explains media analyst Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld from Jerusalem. His seminar last summer, entitled “Bad News about the Netherlands,” became the kernel of his blog.

The NY Times Bias in their Coverage of Gaza

Posted by LB, comments by RL.

Hamas scored a major propaganda victory with its self-imposed blackout and tearing down of the wall between Egypt and Gaza. The MSM was complicit, featuring prominent pictures of Gazan women marching and washing dishes by candlelight. Not surprisingly, the articles about Israeli measures against Hamas-run Gaza featured the same slant. as Prof. Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, writes in his latest article fisking the consistent spin of the NYT Middle East correspondent, Steve Erlanger, a favorite target of The Augean Stables:
Erlanger gets a D in Jounalism 101: Palestinian Suffering via PCP1
Listen to the hollow man: Erlanger defends himself
Erlanger on Israeli Soldiers: Where’s the Balance?
Erlanger, Dupe of Demopaths: Does he really believe this stuff?

Not Even Pretending to be Fair: The New York Times On Gaza
Barry Rubin
January 31, 2008

The New York Times coverage of the Middle East, especially Steven Erlanger (who will soon be leaving) has often been terrible. Naturally, the Times and Mr. Erlanger will dispute this, but they will not do so by examining the specific stories filed and what these articles do–and do not–say.

Anyone who analyzes the articles themselves will find many points which seem slanted, and all the slants seem to lean in the same way.