How Israel Battled the Paris Peace Conference - on Social Media

Though not physically present at the Paris peace conference, Israel's Foreign Ministry was very much there by tweet and by soul.

While the Israeli government was absent physically from Sunday's peace conference in Paris, it remained wholeheartedly connected to it by tweet and in spirit.

A senior European diplomat at the conference said cynically that whoever followed the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Twitter accounts would not have gained the impression that the event in Paris was a "pointless conference," as Netanyahu put it.

"They tweeted about every 15 seconds," the Western diplomat said.

The description was accurate. The offensive by Twitter and Facebook via the Foreign Ministry's accounts was well orchestrated. Israeli diplomats told Haaretz that the Israeli Foreign Ministry conducted an all-out "operation" on social media against the Paris conference.

Diplomats aware of the goings on behind the scenes saw that the central headquarters for making decisions and issuing orders was a WhatsApp group with the boring title of "The Paris conference – The Foreign Ministry."

The WhatsApp group was launched on January 10, five days before the conference took place, and it ceased operations on the evening of January 15, a few hours after the conference ended.

The group included 50 Israeli diplomats involved in diplomatic and propaganda campaigns surrounding the Paris conference – from the ministry's director-general, Yuval Rotem, branch heads and the relevant ambassadors, spokespeople for embassies in Europe and central capitals around the globe.

"The aim of setting up the group was to make sure the political and media operations surrounding the conference were synchronized," one of the first posts published by the group said.

In the days that followed brief messages were sent no longer than the size of a tweet, including memes, caricatures and videos shared on social media and updates about statements made linked to the conference or relevant tweets.

An Israeli diplomat in the WhatsApp group said that every so often a link would be sent to a tweet that supported the Israeli position with instructions for all official Israeli diplomatic and embassy accounts to retweet it.

"The idea was to respond as quickly as possible by social media to what was going on at the Paris conference and to try to influence the discourse on the issue," said an Israeli diplomat involved in propaganda activity.

In the days ahead of the conference Foreign Ministry people began to circulate two caricatures by social media that tried to transmit the Israeli message and mock the French organizers.

One caricature showed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sitting on a tree branch. On one side of the tree stood Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a ladder, trying to pull Abbas down from the tree, while on the other side of the tree the Paris Conference was taking away the ladder to permit the Palestinian president to barricade himself on top.

The second caricature showed next to a maze in the center of which the word "peace" appears. The message was that the conference would lead to a dead end while direct negotiations would lead to the center of the maze where the word "peace" appeared.

On the day of the conference, there was a real confrontation on Twitter between Israel and France. The French Foreign Ministry posted a brief video on its Twitter accounts that reviewed the aims of the conference. 

Within a few hours the Israeli Foreign Ministry responded with tweets that included a counter video. The Israeli video appeared visually identical to the French clip but included Israeli messages.

"If the Paris conference wants to advance peace it must call to the Palestinians to stop incitement, demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state and make clear to the Palestinians that direct negotiations with Israel with no preconditions is the only way to achieve peace," the video stressed.

The morning after the conference the French responded with a tweet in reply for the foreign ministry in Paris. Alongside the illustration of the dozens of foreign ministers who participated in the conference the French wrote in the tweet:

Dear @IsraelMFA, thank you for your video. We're sorry we didn't answer yesterday - we were busy working for peace

The Twitter war drew many reactions on social media and in mainstream media, but when the French reaction tweet came, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem decided not to respond.

"We didn’t want to be dragged into a battle with them," one senior official at the foreign ministry said.

"We felt that in light of the meaningless results of the conference there was really no point."

The senior figure in the Foreign Ministry tweeted that despite the intensive Twitter activity, the propaganda campaign against the Paris conference was relatively minimal. "We could have conducted a much larger campaign but we didn’t think the conference was so significant," the figure said.

"The general assessment was that public and media debates on the topic were not particularly extensive."