twitter - AP - December 1 2010
The Twitter homepage of Wikileaks. Photo by AP
Text size

Come September, in just three months, the State of Israel is likely to find itself facing a diplomatic onslaught of a totally new kind. If one believes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that month the representatives of the world's nations at the United Nations will be discussing whether to recognize Palestine as a state, as a unilateral step without negotiations with Israel.

U.S. President Barack Obama made that scenario all the more likely with his speech to the world supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Whether Israel is about to encounter a totally new reality or whether it's just another milestone in the political process that changes nothing, the international and local press are following the issue keenly.

The closer the date of the unilateral declaration approaches, the more the denizens of Internet are coming to life, promoting their opinions with ever-accelerating urgency. Their battle zone is the social media. You can see it in the Facebook statuses - for and against, in Twitter messages and in protest video clips on YouTube. The nearer September approaches, and with it the UN debate, the more this online activity is likely to escalate. But don't think the State of Israel is leaving the battlefield to the amateurs.

"We are intensively preparing ahead of September," says Chaim Shacham, head of the information and Internet department at the Foreign Ministry. Think of him as the Israeli government's tweeter.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor adds: "We all expect something to happen in September. We don't know what yet, but clearly there's going to be some sort of diplomatic development. We have our finger on the pulse in terms of the social media too."

Preparation involves constantly monitoring the blogs, tweets and insofar as possible, Facebook entries too, though many posts are closed to the general public (available only to specific "friends" ) and cannot be monitored.

Facebook is a social networking website. It is operated and privately owned by Facebook, a company founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Anybody can create a Facebook page: a person, a company or the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Facebook users have a degree of control over who may access their information, maitaining a modicum of privacy, or they can let it all hang out.

TheMarker: When you find a tweet, Facebook status or post against Israel, what do you do?

Palmor: "We have formulated some arguments that are relevant to what's going to happen in September, even if we don't know exactly what it will be. We began disseminating these arguments and statements, backed by links to documents and articles, among the relevant bloggers and social media members. From our perspective we've already begun the battle over publicity, though formally, nothing has begun. Our main argument is 'Palestinian state yes, but only through direct negotiations.' In events that we have to truncate the message to fewer characters, we say, 'Let's talk'."

Lessons from the flotilla fiasco

The Foreign Ministry built up its social media activity after the excruciating flop of the Israeli digital media response following the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, which again taught a lesson about the strength of the Internet community in the Arab world.

Surfers used the social websites as a key media tool to bring down the Egyptian government. The Internet is also central to fomenting unrest in Iran and Arab nations. On Nakba Day two weeks ago, social media were also central to disseminating messages and organizing the boundary breach between Israel and Syria, right under the noses of Israeli army officers, not to mention the Foreign Ministry's top brass.

"After the days of the [Mavi] Marmara flotilla, we learned lessons from Israel's response in the media, including our activity on social media," says Palmor. "One clear conclusion was that no explanations - not in the old media or in the new - will change minds among the hard core of opponents. There are groups and organizations whose activists are impermeable to arguments, not legal ones or economic ones or moral ones. Unfortunately, these people are intensely active in the social media, where they disseminate their messages."

If that's your main conclusion, what is your working plan based on?

"We will go into battle over public opinion," answers Palmor. "It is clear to us that messages that pass through the social media need to be simpler, to be based on elements with international authority. For instance, it isn't enough to say there's a maritime blockade - we have to explain where it can be under international law. Since the explanation is a complex legal one, which contradicts the simplicity of messages by Twitter or Facebook, we have to distill the complex messages in a more accessible way, and send links to legal sources."

What importance and weight does the Foreign Ministry ascribe to social media activity?

"Since nobody's going to give me 10 minutes on CNN to explain the legal and diplomatic background of our moves, the right way to reach people interested in the subject is through the social media," Palmor says. "There I can present our positions in a number of languages, and hope enough people disseminate it onward. We ascribe great weight to the social media and take its seriously. It enables us to present highly complex and sensitive issues, and the key word is dialogue. Conversation."

Do you enter dialogues with people who write against Israel?

Palmor: "We try to answer people who can be talked with. For instance, we have a Facebook page in Arabic. We don't just upload diplomatic messages, but also 'soft stories' about developments in aviation and technology in Israel, culture, medicine, information about international aid that Israel provides. On some status reports and posts we get as many as 3,000 responses each, some of which are negative. We delete the ones with foul language but do allow legitimate responses and comments. With those, a ping-pong of responses develops. The difficulty is to locate the responses appropriate for response by the State of Israel."

72,000 hostile fans

The information and Internet division at the ministry headed by Shacham has 10 people, some of whom are external consultants. They run websites in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian and Persian. Its budget in 2011 amounted to NIS 3 million, not including the wages of the unit's seven state employees.

Its two most recent appointments handle the Facebook and Twitter accounts. Apparently not irrespective of September, they're polishing Foreign Ministry Facebook pages. Recently a Facebook page went online that provides links to all the Facebook pages of Israel's embassies and representations around the world: facebook.com/IsraelMFA. The ministry also runs official state Facebook pages in several languages, including facebook.com/IsraelArabic, which has 72,000 "fans" - not quite the word, really, considering that most posters are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.

"Altogether the Foreign Ministry has about 100 Facebook pages, including the activities of the embassies around the world and the 'Israel at the UN' page," says Shacham. Most are run by the relevant embassies and institutions, with guidance from the ministry.

The ministry's Facebook activity isn't confined to the official pages. As the ministry spokesman, Palmor's personal page creates interesting situations for him. Some months ago he wrote a status about comments by the Norwegian foreign minister, and in response found himself interviewed by the Norwegian press - over Facebook. Through Facebook he's also given an interview to the Indonesian press, he says: The social media is convenient in the case of a reporter who doesn't want to place a call to Israel.

The ministry has several channels through video clip-sharing website Youtube. One is youtube.com/Israel, which has racked up 209,000 views. "It's a pilot," says Shacham. The official version should go up soon, with content from the Tourism Ministry and other bodies. There's also the Foreign Ministry Youtube channel, youtube.com/IsraelMFA with 830,000 views of its clips. That is an official one. Hopefully next month the ministry will be launching Youtube channels in Russian, Spanish and Chinese, Shacham says: They're in the process of being built.

On Twitter, each embassy has an account of its own. The official state account is #israel (which the state bought a few months ago from the operator of a porn website, for several thousand dollars ). It feeds 24,000 followers. Shacham and his team don't just answer surfers whatever crosses their mind: They have guidelines from above, from the National Information Directorate headed by Yarden Vatikai. That directorate synchronizes Israel's messages. "We're coordinated with the IDF spokesman and of course with the things the foreign minister and his deputy say," says Shacham.

The Syrian border breach: who dunnit?

About two weeks ago, the Middle East marked the Nakba, a day of mourning for Israel's establishment and the expulsion or flight of Arabs from their homes. The date is known in advance and rioting is usual - but this year, the Israel Defense Forces were surprised to note a large number of Syrians clustering by the border, and then they broke through, into Israeli territory.

If Israeli intelligence had been keeping an eye on Facebook among young Syrians, they wouldn't have been taken by surprise. A number of groups, perfectly open, had been calling for a border breach on Nakba Day.

The army spokesman refused to allow TheMarker to interview the intelligence personnel responsible for collating Internet information. If asked whether the IDF keeps track of perfectly open social-network activity by young Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians and others - the officer wouldn't answer anyway, he explained. It's secret.

Instead of which, the spokesman issued a statement that army intelligence has been active online for years. It has a special branch to study information from open sources, especially the Internet, he said: That branch can take credit for significant achievements in recent years.

A source in the IDF did admit to TheMarker that the social networks have unique complexities: There are issues of the reliability of information, for instance. And things are so dynamic. They change so fast.

Israel was ready on Nakba Day, Palmor insists.

TheMarker: Yet the army was taken by surprise by the organization of the young Syrians.

"We weren't surprised by the fact of their organization," Palmor says. "We knew about their Facebook groups before Nakba Day. We were surprised that the Syrian army allowed it to happen and didn't prevent it. It is very hard to know what group will develop into something serious, and what won't."