Perhaps the most surprising news story of the past week was Politico’s revelation that Israel had successfully planted cellphone surveillance devices in strategic locations close to the White House. The purpose was to monitor the thinking and decision-making of US President Donald Trump, despite his being considered a hero, if not a messiah by Israelis.
Trump identifies with Israel. He recently stated that American Jews who vote for Democrats are guilty of being disloyal to Israel. Trump has pushed loyalty to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies to the point of leaving the impression that his own foreign policy could more accurately be reformulated as “America Second.”
Reporting on the evidence of Israeli spying on the White House, Business Insider cites the opinion of former operatives of the intelligence community: “According to the ex-officials, such a targeted operation is a significant violation of norms, even for a state like Israel which has a reputation for pushing the boundaries. For Israel, extremely aggressive tactics even towards allied nations appears to be the norm in many cases.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An aberrant behavior that, if repeated often enough to achieve a result without being noticed, becomes not only accepted by society but also imitated as a productive model by others
Whether the Israelis were successful or not at spying on the White House remains a mystery. We do know, however, that “the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior.” That reaction hardly corresponds to the “norm” in international relations. Such a discovery would, at the very least, produce in a “diplomatic incident.”
To prove there were no hard feelings, Trump made a move that in other contexts — with different criteria of judgment — might be seen as an attempt by a foreign leader to influence an election. He addressed a tweet to Netanyahu proposing future discussion of “a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance between [the] two countries.” Netanyahu gratefully replied: “The Jewish State has never had a greater friend in the White House.”
Nor has the Likud party. In the recent past, Israel has had a lot of friends in the White House. Yet a friend who allows himself to be surveilled and spied on by Israel without complaining, and who has no hesitation about aligning his national policies on those of the Israeli leader, is a friend indeed. The suggestion that they might merge their military strategies could be deemed the icing on the cake of friendship.
Observers are left wondering how far this can go and what its implications for the entire Middle East may be. At this point, no one expects the “deal of the century,” expected to be revealed in the wake of this week’s Israeli elections, to have any traction even if Netanyahu comes out on top. The Palestinian question will remain as a permanent source of unresolvable crisis. Al Jazeera quotes a West Bank Palestinian’s take on the election. As someone who has no right to vote but whose life will be governed by the party that wins, he says: “Whether it’s the right or the left that comes to power, we’re doomed anyway.”
Built into the tragic plot is the fact that no one can forget the prospect of a war with Iran, especially after Yemen’s Houthi rebels carried out a successful attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has attributed this incident to Iran, with the US now “locked and loaded” for war, even after the departure of Trump’s chief warmonger, John Bolton.
Politico reminds its readers that, in October 2018, The New York Times had reported that “‘Chinese spies are often listening’ to Trump’s cellphone calls.” The story may or may not have been a variant of The Times’ obsession with the Russiagate theme that sought to paint Trump as the puppet of foreign powers (though never of Israel). The Times’ newsroom executive editor, Dean Baquet, recently admitted to applying a policy focused on spreading every possible hint concerning Trump’s conscious or unconscious gifts to hostile foreign governments, starting with Russia. As Baquet admitted: “We built our newsroom to cover one story and we did it truly well.” (By “well,” he meant feeding the beast even when supplies had run out in the interest of keeping the story alive.)
Israel has, of course, denied even the possibility of spying on the US. Trump’s reaction to the revelation was consistent with his denial of complicity by his other dear Middle Eastern friend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president said: “I don’t think the Israelis were spying on us. My relationship with Israel has been great … Anything is possible but I don’t believe it.” There are many things Trump doesn’t believe in, including his own government’s findings on climate change.
Trump’s indifference may be justified. Any keen observer should have noticed the fact that Politico and all the other news agencies covering this story seem to have voluntarily forgotten that the “norm” they attribute exclusively to Israel may not be so unique and may indeed have been initiated by the US. Taking one step back into recent history, we can easily remember a headline story from 2015 recounting that the US “spied on [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private conversations with world leaders.” And back in 2013, the news service France 24 concluded, on the basis of an interview with Bernard Squarcini, head of the French intelligence service, that spying “on allies is all in a day’s work.”
Shoshana Zuboff recently reminded us that the global economic system we now live under can be described as “surveillance capitalism.” Everybody does it. We live in a surveillance society. Surveillance has become the standard means of making money. The best companies thrive by gathering intelligence on the customers they so love and on whose custom they depend, so why shouldn’t it be also considered the norm for governments in their international relations?
What’s astonishing is how the news outlets now express not just surprise but pretend ignorance of previous cases when they see examples of these reprehensible, antidemocratic and antisocial practices. But the media live by the same rules. Their own strategy uses the norms everyone willingly or unwillingly accepts. Their audience has no choice and can be kept in the dark whenever it serves the media’s purposes. In filtering the news to be “consumed” by their public, the media select what serves their aim of instilling fear or provoking an indignant reaction. Their success depends on stirring the emotions of their public. Emotion is what keeps people tuned into the news. At the same time, by treating stories of spying and surveillance as exceptional, as deviations from the true norm, their public will continue to blissfully ignore that their very lives and identities are the fodder of surveillance capitalism.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.