Palestine in Hebrew: a new approach to Palestinian digital diplomacy
Ilan Manor and Marcus Holmes
In 2008, the Swedish government launched the world’s first virtual Embassy. Located within the virtual world of Second Life, the Embassy served as a cultural institute enabling the government to promote Swedish culture on a truly global scale. Embassy visitors could attend gallery openings, interact with Swedish artists and attend Swedish art festivals. Sweden’s virtual Embassy is considered a milestone in the evolution of digital diplomacy as it demonstrates the manner in which digital platforms influence the conduct of diplomacy.
The US State Department launched its own virtual Embassy to Iran in 2011. With slightly different goals than those of the Swedish government, the State Department employed digital tools so as to overcome the limitations of traditional diplomacy, namely the absence of bilateral ties with Iran. The virtual Embassy, known as Virtual Embassy Iran, consisted of a web-based platform through which American diplomats could converse with Iranian citizens, explain US foreign policy in the Middle East and manage America’s image among Iranians.
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Recently, Palestine has launched a new virtual Embassy which aims to engage with Israeli citizens. This Facebook-based Embassy, known as Palestine in Hebrew, is managed by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society and has the explicit goal of facilitating understanding between both people and promoting the two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Palestine represents a fascinating case-study for several reasons. First, Palestine maintains a difficult diplomatic status, being a semi-recognized state with only semi-recognized borders. Second, Palestine currently has two governments — one headed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the second headed by the PLO in the West Bank — challenging traditional strategies of public diplomacy. Third, Israel and Palestine only partially recognize one another. Consequently, Palestine has no diplomatic presence in Israel which complicates Palestinian diplomacy with Israel.
While Palestine is no stranger to digital diplomacy, the Facebook Embassy to Israel is unique in that it is used solely to advocate a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel. Other Palestinian embassies use social media to depict life in the occupied territories and denounce Israeli policies.
In a recent study, we analysed the Facebook activity of Palestine in Hebrew in terms of content and online interactions between Palestinian officials and Israeli citizens. Our results suggest that Palestine is using its Facebook Embassy to create a positive image of the future State of Palestine. To this end, the Embassy has published content depicting the values of the Palestine of the future — including its democratic nature, its desire to live peacefully next to Israel and its commitment to women’s rights and the rights of minorities. Moreover, the Embassy’s content often emphasized that both people will only prosper if both are free and independent.
We also found that the Facebook Embassy published content that projects Palestine as a ‘state in the making’ — these posts featured Palestinian national institutions, national sports teams and national cultural events. By exposing Israelis to Palestinian national symbols, the Embassy may be attempting to lead Israelis to view Palestine as a legitimate state rather than a partial autonomy. In other words, by depicting its de facto statehood on social media, Palestine may be pursuing a strategy of taking steps towards actual statehood.
There are, however, clear limits to this strategy. Our analysis found that the Facebook Embassy does not tend to deal with contentious issues that may serve as barriers to any future peace talks. Although the Embassy does emphasize a commitment to non-violent resistance to Israel’s occupation of the territories, the Embassy failed to condemn terrorist attacks against Israel and it did not comment on incitement against Israelis in the Palestinian education system — two issues that were present at the time of data collection. Most importantly, the Facebook Embassy did not explicitly engage with questions regarding the Hamas governments’ unwillingness to recognize Israel. Many would argue that engaging with these contentious issues is central to the Israeli public discourse surrounding the two-state solution.
As part of our study, we also evaluated the scope of actual dialogue between Israeli citizens and the Embassy’s administrators. Notably, all content published by the Facebook Embassy is in Hebrew as are online interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. Our analysis found that Palestine in Hebrew routinely converses with its social media visitors and followers. While the topics of these conversations vary greatly, the Embassy appears to be committed to engaging with Israelis while answering their queries, addressing what they perceive as misconceptions about Palestine and responding, to a certain extent, to criticism.
We conclude that Palestine in Hebrew is a promising experiment in public diplomacy and may indeed succeed where other efforts have failed. We attribute this optimism to the continuous interactions between Palestinians and Israelis evidenced. Previous studies suggest that virtual embassies often fail to achieve their goals as diplomats do not engage in conversations with their intended audiences. Rather, virtual embassies soon turn into information conduits that merely disseminate information among online publics. Yet it is only through dialogue and meaningful conversations that embassies can create a receptive environment for their foreign policy and realize the potential of digital diplomacy.
We conclude that by promoting both a positive vision of Palestinian independence and a shared future in which both Israelis and Palestinians prosper, Palestine in Hebrew may help to revive Israelis’ faith in the two-state solution, which would mean a considerable shift in public opinion. Such a shift in public opinion could cause the Israeli government to return to the negotiating table. If this is realized, Palestine in Hebrew may soon be regarded as another milestone in the evolution of digital diplomacy.
Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. His recent monograph on digital diplomacy was published as part of Brill’s Research Perspective in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. He blogs on issues relating to digital diplomacy at www.digdipblog.com.
In the January 2018 issue of International Affairs he reviewed Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘The chessboard and the web: strategies of connection in a networked world.’
Read the review here.
Marcus Holmes is Assistant Professor at The College of William & Mary. He is co-editor of Digital diplomacy: theory and practice with Corneliu Bjola and author of Face-to-face diplomacy: social neuroscience and International Relations.