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October 23, 2014
Saturday, August 2, 2014

Default on language

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

International pressure may be mounting on Israel to stop the fire on Gaza in its asymmetrical war against the terrorist organization Hamas, but the one sad fact of politics is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is riding an unprecedented wave of nationalist-driven popularity. No surprise the 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire agreed yesterday only lasted for a couple of hours.

Polls show it pays to be a hardliner. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute conducted through the start of the conflict shows a stubborn over 90-percent approval rates for Operation Protective Edge. Only 3-4 percent of Israeli Jews believe that their country’s forces had used excessive firepower in their actions in Gaza. Another poll by the University of Haifa published this week said 85 percent of the people were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with Netanyahu’s leadership.

While the footage of death and destruction among the civilian population in Gaza fuels anti-Israeli sentiment in many corners of the world (starting with Europe), the incentives for Israeli authorities to contradict the wishes of their public are low. “We have to be prepared for a protracted battle,” Netanyahu told Israelis this week.

When in crisis, public opinions tend to loop into vicious circles of justification for their actions. The images of the devastation are mostly kept away from the public, as Israeli journalists are not allowed into Gaza unless they are embedded in their country’s troops. Journalism enters a state of complacency with the authorities, as presented by a Janine Zacharia story run by the Herald on Thursday. Many Israelis are not seeing foreign press coverage with good eyes either: the Foreign Press Association in Israel condemned this week what it called “deliberate official and unofficial incitement against journalists” who are reporting on the conflict.

Opinion bubbles are easy to create in times of crisis – and are strong, while they last. The first thing they block is freedom of expression. With the casualties spiking, Israel’s Parliament (Knesset) on Tuesday suspended Hanin Zoabi, a legislator for the Balad Israeli Arab political party, for comments she made in a radio interview that the kidnappers of three Israeli teens who were later found dead were not terrorists. “They are not terrorists, even though I disagree with them. They are people that cannot see any way to change their reality, and they are forced to use these means until Israeli society wises up a bit and sees and feels the suffering of the other,” Zoabi said. Some Israeli lawmakers called for Zoabi’s arrest for inciting violence or terror. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman went as far as saying Zoabi should be expelled from the country. A prosecutor found there were no grounds for her arrest but her fellow legislators barred her from participating in debates at the Knesset for six months.

***

The Argentine public is also fed its own bubble in the debt conflict the government has blown into a major economic crisis. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made an odd association between the “missiles taking the lives of children and women” in the Israel-Hamas war and “the financial missiles … also taking the lives and dreams of Argentines” (in the President’s defence, Noble Laureate Joseph Stiglitz also resorted to the bombing image to describe the Argentine situation).

Yet the only possible comparison between the conflict with weapons in the Middle East and the conflict with bonds in Argentina is one about opinion gaps. The Argentine government is obsessed with the word picked to define the country’s inability to meet with its debt obligation and is challenging the interpretation that this is a default. “They will have to look for another word to call it,” the President has said, in a line repeatedly echoed by her leading ministers and government outlets. Elegantly, the organization in charge of naming the debt names called it “a credit event.”

Technicalities aside, the outside world has little doubt about how to call the incident. And yet the debate on semantics is the latest example of the over emphasis the administration places on narrative over fact. There is a reason behind it: polls have showed that the public largely supports Argentina’s case against the holdouts of the 2005 and 2010 debt restructuring schemes, although opinions are mixed on whether the government should have made an extra effort to reach an agreement with the “vulture” Singer and Co.

As it happens, one can escalate a conflict for its own benefit only up to a certain point without running the risk of losing control. It is not clear whether the Fernández de Kirchner administration made any political calculations but at the very least it unconsciously decided that, given the costs it would have to take after the US Supreme Court threw away its case, it could at least insert the entire debt saga into the epic series.

The cost is that conflict does not always solve problems. Israel is unlikely to meet its security goals by bombarding civilians in Gaza, just like the government will hardly come to terms with its debt issues by lambasting the rules it chose some years ago. Both strategies will serve their purposes only in the short term. In the longer run, as stated in a recent interview by Catalina Botero, the region’s outgoing rapporteur for freedom of expression, “extreme polarization does not benefit any reasonable interest.”

@mjotagarcia

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