Digital Diplomacy in the Service of Foreign Policy Objectives / Yuval Rotem

Yuval Rotem / Director General, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

One of the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East has always been the hostility towards Israel deliberately fostered in the Arab media. Through the years, various Arab leaders have been willing to engage and negotiate with their Israeli counterparts, and real, mutually beneficial relationships have been established, but hostile Arab public opinion – deliberately cultivated by the media – has always impeded the development of the full peace that we seek.

The advent of the internet offered the promise of openness, and with it of mutual acquaintance and growing understanding, but this promise was ultimately left unrealized as regimes developed the capacity to block websites originating in Israel (and elsewhere) and thus limit the exposure of their publics to unwanted content.

The era of social media offers Israel an opportunity – for the first time – to reach out to Arab publics directly.

In 2010 the MFA launched, among a wide variety of social media channels, a Facebook page in Arabic. Today, that page has close to a million followers, who receive a rich mix of content, some translated from English or Hebrew but most of it original content prepared in Arabic, showcasing the human qualities of our society, the close cultural links between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and more generally offering an authentic vibrant window on Israeli life. Our followers come from across the Middle East and we are seeing ever higher engagement rates, suggesting that the interest in our story is strong.  We are also working to complement this Facebook presence with greater activity in Arabic on Twitter (MFA and PMO accounts), Instagram and YouTube.

Of course these activities in Arabic garner no small amount of negative and hostile feedback, attempts to crash our servers and all the vitriol that we have come to expect from those who hate Israel and the west, but these negative responses don’t overshadow or diminish in our eyes the immensely positive power of the direct communication we’re creating.

Building public support in the Arab world for normalized and peaceful relations with Israel is of course a long strategy, and it does not stand alone, separate from more traditional forms of statecraft. But ordinary, people-to-people interactions, exchanges and mutual exposure are essential to realizing our desire for peace and security, and our digital diplomacy is becoming an ever more central avenue for building those foundations.

In a similar vein we recently revamped our social media efforts to reach out to the Iranian public. Here too, the policy agenda is simple – to build public support for normalized and peaceful relations between the two countries. Israel has no quarrel with the Iranian people and we are determined to convey that message to the Iranian people directly. Through direct appeals by video from PM Netanyahu and a steady flow of curated content we are seeing our online presence in Persian consistently grow in impact. Again, social media is no panacea for the challenges posed to Israel by the policies of the Iranian regime, but it is an ever-growing component of our public diplomacy toolkit for communicating and advancing the peaceful outcomes we seek.

An example of how we use Twitter as a PD tool to complement and buttress our traditional diplomacy came in January 2017, when our French counterparts convened an international conference on Middle East peace which we felt was missing the mark, by encouraging our Palestinian neighbors to think that they can achieve their political objectives without having to sit down and negotiate peace directly with Israel. Knowing that our colleagues would be looking to promote the wisdom of the conference to the policy community and interested media, we decided to use Twitter to convey our contrasting perspective to the very same audiences.

The tactic worked. We were able generate a Twitter conversation with the French Foreign Ministry which later then received traditional media coverage in key outlets. With Israel not attending the conference but knowing that the media and chanceries across the globe would be monitoring developments, Twitter offered us an important avenue to communicate our position on the issues being discussed and even to have our view publicly validated by our counterparts.

Like many other foreign ministries, our efforts to enhance our use of digital tools ranges across the full gamut of ministry functions and responsibilities. Traditional public diplomacy objectives of course remain central, but we are investing consistent effort also to ensure that other dimensions, including consular service provision and disaster response, are imagined and planned in ways which harness the opportunities of this digital age effectively.

Digital diplomacy plays an indispensable role today in promoting Israel’s foreign policy goals, and we expect that this role will only grow in the future. In this context we are proud to have hosted the first international conference on digital diplomacy in March 2016 and we are looking forward to hosting a follow up conference in the coming year. We are pleased to be able to play a role in developing our shared professional and critical understanding of contribution and growing impact of digital diplomacy on our work.

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