Israel lobby group urges State Department to begin undercover manipulation of Palestinian websites

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A new report by the Israel lobbyist org Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (with help from the Dershowitz Group) monitored Palestinians’ use of the internet and found that Palestinians speak freely on internet forums, without “manipulation.” And these Palestinians believe that the two-state solution is dead and are generally opposed to the peace negotiations that the Obama administration is conducting, to the point that the authors of the report recommend that the Obama administration should basically forget about the negotiations and… start manipulating the online forums!

Note the frank discussion in the report about the degree to which Palestinian P.M. Salam Fayyad is autocratic and does not represent the popular will. Isn’t that the problem? This is a group that claims to favor democracy. Doesn’t that mean honoring Palestinian political agency? But the report teems with contempt for Palestinian opinion, which has to be engaged for any just resolution of the conflict to occur. Here are some excerpts:

[T]he online environment grants social media users unprecedented levels of anonymity and freedom of expression, and this is particularly the case in Palestinian society, where internet access is largely free of manipulation…..

Regardless of the exact number, Palestinian internet users are generally educated, have the ability to read and write classical Arabic, and have the means to access a computer. Palestinian internet usage—like that in the rest of the Arab world—is on the rise. However, unlike the majority of the Arab world, web access in the Palestinian territories is remarkably open….

It should come as no surprise, then, that news that Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations were resuming prompted a flurry of discussion on and other pro-Hamas sites. Users generally agreed that the return to peace talks did not reflect the will of the Palestinian people….

Fayyad is roundly revered in the West. Indeed, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined the term “Fayyadism” to describe his approach to Palestinian governance: basing legitimacy on transparent and efficient administration, rather than the rejectionism, personality cults, and security services that marked Arafat’s regime.20 Yet, online discussions indicate that Palestinians often regard Fayyad as a Western puppet. Newspaper articles appear to support the notion that this may also be the prevailing sentiment among the broader West Bank community.

…Moreover, the authoritarian context in which Fayyad operates robs his results of domestic legitimacy, and his successes are of “consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.” Fayyad’s efforts to halt corruption and improve security are a step forward, but the regular human rights abuses committed by the West Bank security forces are two steps backward. The promotion of security “is often synonymous with the attempt to suppress Hamas,” [Carnegie’s Nathan Brown writes, and the West Bank government’s opponents are frequently detained without charges.31
Brown also rightly notes that under Fayyad’s leadership, the Palestinian legislative branch is simply nonexistent. Laws are drafted by unelected bureaucrats behind closed doors and with little to no oversight or separation of powers….

The overall opinion of Israel across most of the forums was negative. This sentiment even extended to sites associated with Fatah, the faction engaging in diplomacy with Israel. For example, during one period, these forums propagated reports that Israel seeks to “separate Gaza from the West Bank” and thereby “liquidate the Palestinian national project.” Another popular posting in the online environment (re-posted on the Arabic blog aggregator and asserted that Israel is incapable of “unilateral” peace due to a lack of political will, and that the two-state solution is “on its deathbed”—meaning that Palestinians need to seriously consider a one-state solution to the conflict.
In summary, despite the Obama administration’s recent push to bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and perhaps help the Palestinians declare a state, a sampling from the online environment indicates that the Palestinians are not on a peace footing. Rather, the language of rejectionism is prevalent.
Thus, despite Washington’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians—both through new Obama administration policies and online engagement with Palestinians through a State Department initiative to explain those policies—the negative tone of Palestinian online forums suggests that those efforts may be failing….

[T]he State Department’s efforts to influence the online discussions were largely ineffective. This may stem from the fact that the team is small in number, and cannot possibly challenge even a plurality of the views expressed on sites where sentiments run counter to U.S. objectives. However, it also may stem from a process whereby the engagement team has the odds stacked against it. Indeed, the Digital Outreach Team identified itself in every online interaction, which nearly always drew fire from users with a pre-existing bias against the United States.
To be effective, the outreach team must not advertise its presence. More importantly, it must launch a broader campaign to limit and discredit violent messages, expose Palestinian extremists on the Internet, and thwart their ability to gain credibility. This will require a more aggressive approach than the one currently employed. It may also require additional personnel.
The Digital Outreach Team should also be viewed as an important source of intelligence. Indeed, they regularly assess sentiments expressed online in the same way that Foreign Service Officers assess political sentiments on the ground. As such, they can add an additional window of understanding into the Palestinian political landscape. To this end, they could participate more actively in conversation threads and pose specific questions on a range of topics.


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