Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz
The National Interest
18 October ’10
In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton believed Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians were prepared to make peace. In September 2000, the Palestinians launched a guerrilla war. Five years later, President George W. Bush believed the secular Fatah faction would win the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. Instead, the Islamist terror organization Hamas won by a large margin. Drawing from erroneous poll data and misreading the realities on the ground, Washington has too often minimized antipeace sentiment on the Palestinian street. Is President Barack Obama, in his current push for Middle East peace, about to repeat the mistakes of presidents past?
Imagine that Obama’s advisors could simultaneously sit in a dozen Palestinian markets, or souks, and listen to thousands of Palestinians speaking in Arabic about U.S. policy priorities in the Middle East. More importantly, imagine those conversations had no outside influence.
In April 2010, we launched a study with that in mind. Our organization, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), commissioned ConStrat, a company that deploys military-grade technology on behalf of the United States Central Command, to study online Palestinian political sentiment. For nine weeks, ConStrat culled thousands of Arabic language posts from search engines, unstructured social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks (like Facebook), wikis, and RSS feeds.
While polls are often designed to elicit specific responses, social media is largely free of outside manipulation. Most Palestinians write under pseudonyms, enabling them to discuss controversial issues without fear of retribution. Admittedly, social media captures only the sentiments of literate Palestinians with access to computers and with passionate views. But it offers important insights nonetheless.
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