The State Has Triumphed Over Facebook

An idea that wins popularity on Facebook, be it Israel's cottage cheese protest or the demonstrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square, can bring Tnuva's CEO to his knees or topple Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt.

Greece has halted the Gaza-bound flotilla protest, after Turkey had already stopped its boats from taking part. The diplomatic context is clear: Israel's position is strengthening amid the revolts in the Arab world, and it's gaining friends who are abandoning the Palestinians and the pro-Iran camp. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu correctly calculated his diplomatic steps and threats of force, and the flotilla did not embark.

But stopping the flotilla has a broader significance, one that exceeds the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. Governments have taken charge and made clear that they, not passengers or a vessel's crew, determine whether ships can sail. The protest organizers grumbled, but they were helpless against the Greek coast guard.

We've been told that governments are losing their authority and that sovereign power is entering the hands of civilians at nonprofit organizations and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Protest movements and digital networks cross borders and continents; at first glance, they are not accountable to politicians, or to immigration and custom inspectors. An idea that wins popularity on Facebook, be it Israel's cottage cheese protest or the demonstrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square, can bring Tnuva's CEO to his knees or topple Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt. But it turns out that in the real world, the one inhabited by real people, as well as planes and ships, governments remain powerful and have the strength to overcome organized civil movements.

The first to translate social networks into political and military power was Osama bin Laden, who set up Al-Qaida as a decentralized organization not rooted in a specific territory and struck ferociously at superpower America. The September 11, 2001 attacks marked the start of a struggle between, on one side, governments and the old regime, based on strict international borders, and on the other, the open, anarchistic world of the 21st century in which a personal computer, cellphone or blurry recording is all one needs to stir a revolution. The United States needed almost a decade to track down bin Laden and kill him.

The revolts in the Arab world appeared to be the ultimate victory of social networks over governments. Defying state security forces and their interrogation rooms, young protesters used Twitter to send the masses to public squares, toppling dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. This was the digital version of Marx's 19th century call, "Workers of the world, unite!" It was a show of class unity by the Internet generation, which has rebelled against parental authority and changed the world.

Yet, as happened during the revolutions of the 1960s that toppled presidents Lyndon Johnson and Charles de Gaulle, only to bring to power even more conservative leaders, governments today have mobilized to forestall the danger of lost sovereignty. In Arabs states, this has been expressed by the violent suppression of demonstrations following the confusion stirred by Mubarak's removal. In Turkey and Greece, the trend has been reflected by these countries' opposition to the pro-Gaza flotilla.

U.S. President Barack Obama is, as usual, torn between his instinctive sympathy for the protesters in public squares and his country's foreign policy interest in preserving the world order. That explains his response to the uprising in Syria. Bashar Assad has persuaded world leaders that if he's removed from office, Syria will be torn apart by tribal strife, a la Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya - states that crumbled after Western interventions. Obama doesn't want to become embroiled in another bloody misadventure, so he's trying to keep Assad in power while issuing tepid calls for a "reform" of the Syrian regime.

Israel, which since its establishment has dealt with "private" mobilizations of Palestinians who demanded a return to their pre-1948 lands, or who carried out terror attacks, habitually claimed that responsibility rested with governments in the region. Only when there were no governments around, Israel grudgingly transferred lands, and responsibility for them, to hostile organizations (the PLO, Hezbollah, Hamas ). Israel hoped that these groups would consolidate as institutional entities capable of enforcing cease-fires and maintaining the calm on the border. It's clear why, in response to the errors of the effort to stop last year's flotilla - when the Israel Defense Forces fought against a civilian protest group and became mired in controversy - Netanyahu opted for the familiar routine of saying that authority rested with governments.

This tactic has succeeded, at least for now, and reinforced the old order. The state has triumphed over Facebook and the nonprofit organizations, at least until the next round.