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After Manama: Failed propaganda and the consolidation of authoritarian powers

August 3, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Demonstrators gather to protest against “Bahrain Workshop” and “Deal of the Century” plan of USA in front of Tunisian General Labour Union’s headquarter in Tunis, Tunisia on July 8, 2019 [Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency]

Most pundits and commentators agree that the US-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, which was organised by the most ardent pro-Israel partisans of US President Donald Trump’s administration in Manama, Bahrain in June, miserably failed in its effort to liquidate the Palestinian struggle for freedom and national sovereignty once and for all. A month later, the Israeli and the US regimes are scrambling to offset some of the damage to their arrogant imperial and colonial policies.

The Israeli and US regimes are following a two-fold strategy: First, they are waging another round of propaganda war to sow more divisions and discontent among different Arab nationals and sway Arab and Palestinian public opinion on normalisation, peace, and US foreign policy.

Second, they are not simply extending and expanding Israel’s ethnocratic, Zionist, settler-colonial project and apartheid regime, but more importantly are realigning authoritarian and reactionary powers in the Middle East (Israel-Saudi Arabia-Turkey) with the rising power of far-right populist and nationalist governments around the world, in the service of US interests and empire. This includes the recent US efforts to court the Palestinians and re-integrate the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leadership into the orbit of US imperial power.

Manama flop

The “Peace to Prosperity” workshop was convened under the assumption that the Palestinians no longer matter in the new geopolitical map of the Middle East and the emergent struggles between the superpowers in the region. Indeed, the US gambit was that any permanent solution to the ethnocratic Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine can be reached not only without the participation of the Palestinians, but also with their complete and willing surrender.

In Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon’s, absurd Orwellian terms, surrender is good since it simply means parity in the decision-making process that will bring about peace, which in the lexicon of Big Brother means reinforcing the status quo and forever legitimising the ethnocratic Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine.

Fortunately, the international community still considers the Palestinian struggle for freedom an important global political cause and a human rights issue that should be resolved within existing frameworks of international legal agreements and accords.

Read: US officials deny plans for Arab peace summit as Kushner seeks funds for ‘deal of the century’

More importantly, the international community made it clear that it will not ungrudgingly continue to finance the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, along with its ethnocratic Zionist settler-colonial project and apartheid regime. On the one hand, the ethnocratic Zionist settler-colonial project and military occupation is so anachronistic in its modes of domination and oppression that it has become an unacceptable anomaly in the structures of surveillance capitalism and authoritarian regimes around the world.

On the other, the absence of any real political solution in the embarrassing US plan hinted that the Israeli military occupation will more likely be the real beneficiary of more than half of the $50 billion that were earmarked for development funds in Palestine. Israel will probably have oversight of these funds and will likely funnel most of them to its coffers, the way that international funds are currently managed and controlled.

Needless to say, the Trump administration pledged no contributions to this scheme. The US government already provides billions of hard-earned tax dollars in aid to Israel that any additional aid funds may raise concerns about Trump’s economic-nationalist ideology among his alt-right and white supremacist supporters.

Read: Trump launches ‘peace deal’ with no commitment to Palestinian state

Pitching normalisation: Poster boys for peace

No sooner had the Manama workshop ended than the Israeli “hasbara” (propaganda) machinery and its US counterpart started desperately reorganising their media campaigns in the Arab world in order to turn Arabs against each other and shape public opinion in favour of the US vision of prosperity and happiness in the Middle East.

For their part, the Israeli foreign ministry invited a small delegation of Arab bloggers and influencers, or “journalists and media personalities,” according to the ministry, to visit Israel, meet with different Israeli leaders – including radical far-right Islamophobic activists hell-bent on the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque – and to learn more about diversity and multiculturalism in Israel.

The Israeli agenda was to use these poster boys for peace to encourage the Arab public to visit Israel and forge ties between their countries and Israel. However, this blatant attempt at pitching normalisation and whitewashing Israeli violations of international human rights law hugely backfired.

The video of alleged Saudi journalist Mohammad Saud, who was verbally heckled and physically attacked by Palestinians as he walked through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and driven out of Al-Aqsa Mosque, went viral and poked holes in the Israeli hasbara narrative about normalisation.

Read: ‘Israel trying to destroy Arab unity through unknown journalists’

First, Mr. Saud, like the rest of the bloggers and media personalities on this visit, is completely unknown to the Arab public. He studies law and lives in the United States and, as some Saudi activists pointed out, has not been back to Saudi Arabia for many years.

The Federation of Arab Journalists also denied that these journalists were members of the federation or any of its affiliated organisations. The federation also confirmed its opposition to all forms of normalisation with “the Zionist enemy” and pledged support for the full liberation of Palestine and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Second, various Saudi commentators and media personalities were puzzled by Mr. Saud’s insistence on dressing in traditional Saudi dress and bisht (cloak). Not only is the bisht a special cultural signifier usually used to mark a high-class position and exceptional occasions, it immediately exposed him to the Palestinian public who had already been warned about these visits. Mr. Saud could have truly been unconcerned about his public reception, but the bisht was a deliberate attempt to provoke a visceral reaction and drive a wedge between the Palestinian and Saudi public spheres.

This does not mean that there are no Saudi and other Arab influencers and media personalities who have been calling for normalisation with Israel and who have been blaming the Palestinians for the rift between “our cousins the Jews” and the Arab world. They exist and Israel needs them more desperately than ever for two main reasons.

First, the Israeli regime needs these influencers to divide the Palestinians from other Arabs, or the Arab street, which is already alienated from their governments and corridors of power. Indeed, some Saudi commentators have already lashed out at Palestinians, claiming that Palestinians’ “hatred and rejection of [Saudis] is greater than that of the Israelis”.

WATCH: Israel hosts delegation of Arab journalists

In an even more fundamental way, Israel needs them to resolve many of the contradictions that have cracked the edifice of the Israeli ethnocratic, illiberal “democracy”, especially the contradiction between religion and secularism in the Jewish state. In particular, they need them to confirm their belief in its foundational biblical myths, which the Israelis have taken for granted as the basis for their “rightful deed” to the land of Palestine over the last century. In the last few decades, however, these biblical myths have been debunked and thrown out by none other than Zionist and Israeli archaeologists and historians themselves.

Some argue that most Israelis are secular but still believe that God promised them Palestine.  However, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, belief is reflexive and we always need others to believe for us, so we can continue doing what we do. Muslim influencers, who recycle medieval Quranic exegeses that are mostly based on Talmudic (“Israelite”) texts, are urgently needed so that the Israeli public can continue believing that they are the rightful owners of Palestine.

Nonetheless, Palestinian anger over the visit of these unknown diasporic influencers is misplaced. The truth is that many (semi-)official delegations from the Arab world, artists, and Muslim religious tourists from Turkey and Europe can be seen in Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns on a daily basis. It is thus unclear how these groups fit into this debate about normalisation.

Mr. Saud, in particular, seems to have been a convenient target of Palestinian discontent, but he should not have been used as a proxy for the role of the Saudi government in the “deal of the century”. Indeed, there are bigger fish to fry here. The individual bad apples should not obfuscate the systematic and institutional normalisation efforts in which some Arab countries have publically and privately engaged, in the name of their concerns over Iran and the rise of the Shia power bloc.

Read: Israel unveils details of railway connection to Saudi, UAE

False promises of prosperity and happiness

On their part, the Americans led by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his team have been reported to use opinion mining operations to pitch the “deal of the century” directly to the Arab people, sway Arab media in favour of the administration’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East peace process, and improve Arab peoples’ understanding of the administration’s policy. They are upping the ante on the Foreign Broadcast Information Service by using data mining operations to target Arab public opinion and “connect with local populations as effectively as possible – to better understand ‘what’s driving the street’ across the Arab world.”

According to the report, Kushner’s team analysed anti-American and anti-Israel media outlets, the negative and positive terms used to characterise US foreign policy, and even analysed cell phone penetration among Palestinians to understand news consumption at Israeli checkpoints. Part of the effort is to drive a wider wedge between the Palestinian street and Palestinian leadership. One senior aide to Kushner was quoted in the report to the effect that “we believe we can reach the [Palestinian people] people this way […] the street has been abandoned by the leadership.”

The real intention of Kushner’s media project, however, is more pernicious. As we learned from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, their goal is more likely to construct psychological profiles for a vast number of Arabs and Palestinians and use these profiles to target these individuals with specific messages that appeal to their psychological profiles about peace, US foreign policy, the PA, the Zionist settler-colonial project, etc.

Read: Egypt bans publication of ‘unofficial information’ on Bahrain workshop

Grounded in the principles of positive psychology and happiness studies, which developed, as Zizek points out, in collaboration with the cognitive-military complex, the premise of Kushner’s plan is that “individuals are much better controlled and ‘nudged’ in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as the free and autonomous agents of their own life”.

Unsurprisingly, Kushner’s team wants us to believe that although “90% of Palestinians distrust the administration,” there was still a positive shift in Palestinian public opinion regarding the economic portion of their “Peace to Prosperity” plan. They truly believed that the Palestinians were going to fall for their promises of utopia without any limits – prosperity, happiness, no unemployment and no poverty, even though the funds were not secured.

Nonetheless, Kushner’s attempt to manipulate Arabs and Palestinians into buying into their narrative and shaping the choices they make with regard to their well-being and happiness to fit the interests of the US and the Israeli regimes simply did not work. His team realised soon enough that despite his marketing plan to sell rosy promises of prosperity and happiness, he could not buy the Palestinians off. The resounding message he got from the Palestinian street and Palestinian leadership was that “Palestine is not for sale”.

Kushner does not understand the paradox in his plan. The main problem here is that the new mechanisms of social control they are using contradict the anachronistic modes of oppression and domination of the Israeli military occupation and its apartheid politics. In the words of various critics of the plan, prosperity cannot be achieved when the structural conditions (the Israeli military occupation, the apartheid regime, and the Zionist settler-colonial project) that inhibit prosperity are still in place.

Read: UAE proposes to host next ‘deal of century’ meeting

Regrouping authoritarian and reactionary powers

In addition to their media campaigns, the Americans are realigning authoritarian and reactionary powers in the region with the far right populist and nationalist regimes around the world to serve the interests of the US empire in its prospective struggles with various superpowers in the region.

At one level, critics are correct to point out that the Manama workshop was meant as a distraction from the ongoing Nakba that continues to happen under the radar in Palestine. Israel’s recent demolition of 16 residential buildings in Wadi Al-Hummus neighbourhood in the Palestinian village of Sur Baher was condemned as another war crime and a “blatant act of ethnic cleansing.”

Critics also correctly note that the visit of US National Security Adviser John Bolton to Israel and his tour of the occupied Jordan Valley bodes ill for the Palestinians. Bolton’s visit might spell another brazen act on the part of the United States towards recognising Israel’s illegal control over occupied Palestinian territory in defiance of international law.

However, there is more to it than this. The US empire aims to consolidate its power base in the region ahead of any prospective confrontations with other world superpowers. Some critics have suggested that the US no longer needs the Middle East and that the effectiveness of US foreign policy should be measured by how the US engages with “China, India, Russia, the European Union, and other significant global nation-states”.

Read: Israel attacks protesters in newly demolished Jerusalem area

These critics clearly underestimate the importance of the region for the US empire as the global capitalist system undergoes shifts towards structures of authoritarian capitalism that decouple capitalism from democratic structures of governance and usher a new wave of far-right, populist and nationalist governments. As the philosopher Noam Chomsky remarks:

These objectives fall within a broader strategy of forming a global reactionary alliance under the U.S. aegis, including the “illiberal democracies” of Eastern Europe (Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.) and Brazil’s grotesque Jair Bolsonaro … That’s a natural strategy for today’s Trump-McConnell Republican party, well ensconced to the far right of the international spectrum, even beyond the European “populist” parties that were not long ago considered a contemptible fringe.

It is within these dynamics that the recent efforts of the Trump administration to woo and court Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority should be understood. Warming up relations with the PA is not simply, as some have noted, a belated recognition on the part of the Trump administration of the relevance and centrality of the Palestinians to any historic resolution of the conflict, but part of the campaign to realign and consolidate authoritarian and reactionary powers in the region.

It has become clear that various state actors in the region are not going to play along with the Americans as long as the Palestinians are excluded from the process. Reintegrating the Palestinians into the orbit of the US empire can guarantee that all players and actors will toe the line.

These dynamics would also explain the PA’s decision to suspend all agreements and deals with Israel after the demolition of homes in Wadi Al-Hummus. The PA is playing hard ball with the Americans, but this decision had been made in the past and it was never implemented.

Moreover, as some critics have correctly remarked, suspending these agreements would mean nothing without addressing the fate and function of the PA itself. The US might as well make some concessions to and resume some formal relations with the Palestinians, but make no mistake—this is all done in the name of US national interests and imperial hegemony.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.