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Last week it finally happened. A group of Internet surfers organized a campaign, mounted a petition and changed one aspect of the political system. The online petition, led by Tomer Resnik and Nimrod Barnea, led to the suspension of the proposed Copyright Law, sponsored by MK Avshalom Vilan of Meretz, which would have outlawed peer-to-peer file sharing. Slightly more than 3,000 signatories was all the petition needed to black a bill that would have harmed them. It is difficult to avoid waxing poetic in light of what appears to be the first successful use of the Internet to effect change in the Israeli political arena, and not to revel at its potential to promote grassroots involvement in political decisions. But the debate that developed in response to journalist Yuval Dror's blog last week was considerably less optimistic.

"To think Meretz actually did something because of this petition is simply silly," Dror wrote. "I believe in the citizen's ability to influence government, but at this point, an online petition is the last path I would choose to influence characters like Olmert."

Dror wrote this in response to a call by journalist and online activist Shuki Galili to sign a petition from the non-profit Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel against Yisrael Beiteinu joining the government. Galili, who presents a more positive perspective, wrote on his own blog, "It's about time an online petition really succeeded. This one stands a chance - so, move your butts for just half a minute, go to the site and sign."

But they promised

These petitions are just two examples of the awakening political activism on the Internet. This includes a broad debate of the management of the war in the north, a site to elect Eli Amir as the next president of Israel and several independent campaigns to use the Internet as an alternative to mainstream media. One of them is Israel's social television site (www.tv.social.org.il), which screens abundant reruns of leftist demonstrations in Bil'in that all too often end in the Border Police inflicting serious injury.

"Because most of the time media coverage creates reality, it is important that we the citizens control coverage and provide access to information from a critical perspective, rather than leaving this to the wealthy," states the site.

The "Avoda Shehora" site (www.blacklabor.com) also attempts to bypass established media, but does so in another way: It offers direct dialogue with elected officials, mainly from the Labor Party, and attempts to encourage surfers to become politically active, even if only online.

Itai Asher and Yohai Eilam, who founded the site, use a system that Ofer Landau adopted a long time ago in his Yisralim B'afela (Israelis in the Dark) blog: They send letters to MKs and ministers and publish the correspondence on the site in an attempt to promote transparency and influence politicians.

"If Avigdor Lieberman's party - which is so identified with the extreme, immoderate right - joins the government, what will the government's identity be?" Harel Leibowitz, age 18, asks Labor members.

Asher and Eilam created the site in response to their disappointment with Labor's performance and leadership. "A great deal of hope was raised in the elections, and this is a major disappointment," Asher says. "It's not that I hung a poster of [Defense Minister] Amir Peretz over my bed, but I want them to keep the promises they made in their campaign. We are simultaneously trying to offer another form of communication among citizens and voters while becoming a public force that pushes politicians to keep their promises. This is the only way to talk to politicians and force them to listen to us."

Asher says they are urging others to do the same: write letters to politicians and publish them on the site. But the number of writers, which has increased slightly since the site went live, still mainly includes veteran Internet activists like Galili and Yonatan Klinger who write their own blogs.

"That's our weak point and the subject of many discussions between us," Asher admits. "How do you break the bubble? It is much easier to get politicians to answer us than to make people write letters."

Reaching the surfers

But even before trying to rouse Web surfers from their political apathy, activists have to reach them, and that is not at all simple.

"The surfers' attention is focused on 0.5 percent of all the sites on the Web, and mainly on major portals and news sites," says Dr. Karine Barzilai-Nahon, an information systems lecturer at the University of Washington. "If you're not there, you don't exist. Unfortunately, even if you are there, it does not mean you will succeed."

Because of the abundance of sites on the Internet, people use what Barzilai calls "gatekeepers," like major portals and news sites that filter content.

Dr. Yaakov Hecht also considers this a critical problem. "There is a burgeoning number of social innovators who want to effect change but have no framework. If they were to form a party, that would be one thing. But they choose to remain within the fourth estate, on the Internet."

However, Hecht is a great believer in the relative power of talkbacks as a political tool. "The fact that they are associated with articles makes them far more popular than blogs, and politicians read them as well," he says.

But is this a form of protest for the lazy?

"Not necessarily. But if I am too lazy to demonstrate in front of the Knesset, I can express my protest in talkbacks. One must remember that this population never thought of writing letters to the editor. In my opinion, talkbacks are far more effective than demonstrations."

On the other hand, Barzilai-Nahon believes that the true objective measure was and still is the number of people who appear in Rabin Square to demonstrate. "People have no energy and they prefer to conduct their battles on the Internet, but it is not enough to create a real political impact. For that, you need organization and funding. I am skeptical about the power all those initiatives will have if they remain only online. I am a great believer in involvement and the power of the Internet to effect change in certain positions. But it is impossible to accomplish this solely within the sphere of the Internet. It doesn't stand a chance. There's nothing you can do about it - the focus of power remains in politics and in the legislature."