The Arab Spring’s Blossoming Opportunities: Arab Mass Media and Relations with Israel

Ms. Ksenia Svetlova

 

The revolution is sweeping the Middle East, taking over the cities, the villages, the republics and the monarchies. The familiar and fossilized structures are falling apart; leaving vacuum at best and piles of toxic debris in most of the cases.The wind of changes that was last seen in the Middle East fifty years ago is reaching every corner, every parliament, every university and every newspaper. While it is too early to discuss the consequences and the outcomes of what is known as "The Arab Spring", it is definitely the right moment to focus on the present –"it is not for us to forecast the future, but to shape it," as Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it.

 

Opportunities and threats

 

During past decades Israel was accustomed to deal with familiar and by most part predictable actors in the region. It is clear why Israeli political elites are so afraid of change across the border – the Stockholm Syndrome runs deep under the skin, enters the blood stream and is virtually impossible to get rid of. Israel was ready to deal with reality of animosity, boycotts, revelations of Anti-Semitism that were often heard in both Jordan and Egypt – the only public partners of Israel in regional peace process – while maintaining stable relationship with well-known figures who did not change but rotate between each other along the years. The defrosting of the cold peace, however, was literally impossible, due to anti-normalization legislation and public agenda in thesecountries, which in many cases were promoted by the same power brokers who gladly shook hands and exchanged hugs with their Israeli partners on private occasions.

 

At the same time the individuals or organizationswho tried to promote establishing bridges with Israel or with specific segments of Israeli society (even with the Arab-Israeli sector) were often persecuted or punished by state security services and eventually were pushed into immigration or shut up. Screenplay writer Ali Salem, journalist Hala Mustafa, sociologist Saad ad-Din Ibrahim and many others paid the price of getting too close and were forced to back up by the regime itself. But nevertheless, their voices were heard, activists came to participate in joint seminars abroad and some fearlessly visited Israel and came back to spread their knowledge about the country which is viewed by overwhelming majority of the Egyptians as "the enemy".

 

Today, when the frame of the regime is gone (in Egypt and Tunisia), and many other regimes are going through the stage of uprising and serious shake-up, the old routines and rules no longer apply and function. Existing structures as trade unions, constitutions and laws are undergoing significant change. This era of uncertainty and flexibility may allow those willing to establish relations with Israel or the Israelis to act more freely than before.

 

On the other hand, being focused on internal, rather than on international course of events, Arab societies are less prone to be preoccupied with Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even the most shallow research of tendencies in Arab mass-media during the last six months show a sharp decline in conflict coverage and in other items that deal with Israel and/or Palestinians.

 

Thus said, it's also important to remember that strong anti-Israeli and anti-normalization sentiments that were partly nurtured by Arab regimes are still very much alive and will not disappear overnight. Even if the conflict will come to an absolute and just end, it will probably take up to three generations on both sides to eradicate the feelings of animosity and hatred (this appreciation was made in 2003 by Dr. Eyad Sarraj,Gazan child psychiatrist). Naturally, the security vacuum and the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that eruptedsince the beginning of the Arab Spring might be used by radical elements in these societies to threat and perhaps hurt the moderates willing to participate in dialogue with the Israelis. So every future step must be well calculated and kept confidential at least on the first stages for the sake of the other party.

 

Mass media

 

The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the Tahrir revolution in Egypt proved that despite the illiteracy and the lack of personal computers, social networks and the new media are immensely powerful and popular in these, as well as in many other, Arab countries. Whereas most of Egyptians still get their daily portion of news reading the "Al-Ahram" or "Al-Masry al-Yom", in desperate times the new media may become the only source of the news for wide segments of the public.

 

The revolution has occurred in Egypt and in Tunisia and the traditional media quickly adapted to the change. However, it is difficult to say that it is not a subject to censorship anymore or that it fully enjoys the privilege of free speech. As far as I know, quite often "Israel-related" items still go through major censorship, while internal censorship applies as well. Therefore ifMitvim as an institute and Israel as a state are interested in promoting themselves in the Arab press, the option of integrating into social media in Arabic language, meaning the blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter must be considered. On a more detailed level influential bloggers (some of them are professional journalists and some are not) can be easily identified and possibly contacted or approached directly or through third party.

 

At the same time, the Gulf-based media (or, better yet said the London-based Gulf media) may be significantly easier to approach. Today, after the dramatic fall of Mubarak regime, it is clear for many Arab Gulf states that the only constant and stable element in the region, in both security and economic terms, is Israel, and given the common fear of Iranian hegemony, this relationship can be fostered even more. Lately many Gulf newspapers and TV stations (all of them controlled by the state or owned by power brokers close to the regime) published interviews with Israeli officials, among them prime minister Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman. The Saudi "Elaph" has published for more than three years the memoirs of Prof. ShmuelMoreh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

It seems that the in post-revolutionary countries the new media might be easier to approach and establish connections with, whereas in conservative countries of the Gulf where, the internet is heavily restricted and censored, the traditional media outlets must be approached. Arab-Israeli media outlets, which now enjoy improved relations with the larger Arab world must be considered as mediators and partners in possible media-related projects.

 

Conclusions

 

The Arab system is going through fundamental and long-term changes that will affect every sector and every aspect of being in these countries. Israelis are mostly frightened by the revolutionary events, by the instability and by the pessimistic prognosis regarding the future developments in these countries. However, it is important to understand that the current transitional period presents us with windows of opportunity in many spheres. While previously the Arab mass-media was largely controlled by governmental structures and every move of editors and journalists was regulated by these structures, today both the rapid development of new media and lack of governmental control (or lessened control) on media allows much more flexibility than before. Moreover, the powerful Gulf media is increasingly interested in Israel, although no revolutions occurred in these countries. Israel may now capitalize on this openness and interest and work to develop relations with major players in the Arab mass-media.

 

 

 

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