Israel Needs to Borrow a Page From Google

An open letter to Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin in response to his missive to Google CEO Larry Page, urging the company to rescind decision to refer to Palestinian territories as 'Palestine.'

marco greenberg
Marco Greenberg
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marco greenberg
Marco Greenberg

Dear Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin,

Now that the initial wave of publicity surrounding your letter to Google’s CEO Larry Page has died down, have you had any second thoughts? Or can we assume that you’re sticking to your guns?

I’ll say this: Your letter did put your name, which until now was largely unknown outside Israel, on the map in media, foreign policy and technology circles. But it may not be in the way that you would like.

When the Foreign Ministry staffer informed you that the homepage was now calling the Palestinian Territories “Palestine” you essentially had three options: Ignore it and prevent the tempest in the teapot; use it to your advantage (more on that in a moment); or come out swinging. But by choosing the latter you unwittingly reinforced the perception of Israel as the neighborhood bully who denies other people the basic right to a country after decades of fruitless negotiation.

I suppose, given your belief in a greater Israel, that you saw it as an opportunity to put on the gloves and make your points heard. But here’s why it won’t work. Google is not just another company. Even more than Facebook, it is the omnipresent force in the lives of every connected human being on Earth. It is far from beyond reproach, but you would be wise to keep this progressive force as a friend - and Israeli ingenuity at the forefront of the company’s international innovation.

Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was quoted by Fox News as trying to belittle them, charging that "Google is not a diplomatic entity” and asserting its move “begs the question why are they getting involved in international politics and on the controversial side."

A little reality check: “Diplomatic entities” are losing relevance to nimble startups that become global companies (Just pick up the new book by former Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim, "The End of Power"). And the world’s digital citizens generally applaud when companies like Google use their influence to speak out on international politics and “do no evil,” such as the company’s courageous stand against online censorship in China. (We can only assume you had no problem with their “controversial” involvement there, which Google co-founder Sergey Brin linked to the anti-Semitism he and his family faced in the former Soviet Union.)

Governments might do well to plug into the immense creativity of the Start Up Nation to connect the two worlds. Start by inviting Meir Brand, who runs Google Israel, for lunch -- and you might hear about how his team’s cutting-edge work is inspiring Google employees worldwide. Or brainstorm with new MK Erel Margalit, who recently left a mega-successful career in venture capital for public service. Or turn to some of the many smart and creative professional diplomats in the Foreign Ministry who are not generally heard.

They might advise you to do damage control and follow up your harmful protest with something positive. How about a letter applauding Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt for describing Israel as “a tech miracle” and inviting him for a return visit to see Israel’s hottest startups that are potential targets for more Google acquisition. Or perhaps you might call asking Schmidt and his colleague and co-author of The New Digital Age, Jared Cohen, to use Google technology to do more to shine the spotlight at the human rights catastrophe perpetrated by the regime in Syria. Or outline how Google can facilitate collaboration between Israeli entrepreneurs and their fledgling Palestinian counterparts who are stymied by the corruption of the PA and the medieval practices of Hamas.

Get Israelis used to saying the P word: Palestine. It may not be easy given the tortured history, but there are facts on the ground. Otherwise, Israel will increasingly be like a lone swimmer in dangerous waters, constantly getting pushed back by the tide of history.

But if past performance is any indication, the Israeli government will be the last to recognize Palestine, kicking and screaming, the Zionist version of Abba Eban’s line about the Arabs never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Imagine if Israel were instead the first? Imagine Israel taking the initiative with its own plan, with a bold move. Imagine Israel took the high ground. Imagine Israel asking What Would Google Do?

Sure, the details are complicated, but the essence is simple. Israel could recognize a Palestine at least in parts of the territories, with final borders to be decided.

Much more than the interminable “peace process,” it is the momentum generated by moves like Google’s that might free Israel of the weight on its shoulders. And that would have an electric effect, enabling it to be what it could be and should be, what it once aspired to be: a light unto the nations, an inspiration to others, a force for good using ingenuity and courage to do no evil.

Marco Greenberg is a PR and marketing executive who has worked with multiple Israeli government ministries.

Screenshot of Google's local home page in the Palestinian territories.

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