Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 25.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past few years, foreign ministries and world leaders have flocked to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook in a practice generally referred to as digital diplomacy. By so doing, leaders and governments are able to communicate directly with journalists, other governments and, perhaps most importantly, foreign populations.
At times, digital diplomacy may be used to foster dialogue between two countries that have yet to establish diplomatic relations. In 2011, the US State Department launched Virtual Embassy Tehran, a web-based platform meant to enable direct communication between the US government and Iranian citizens. Likewise, in 2013 Israel launched its own virtual embassy on Twitter, which is meant to foster relations between Israel and the populations of six Gulf States.
Last month, Twitter announced that another world leader had joined the world of digital diplomacy – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Within hours of this statement, Abbas’s Twitter profile had attracted hundreds of Israeli followers, mainly journalists and diplomats. This is not surprising as both these groups have come to regard digital diplomacy channels as important sources of information. However, by the time Abbas’s account had reached 2,000 followers, it was revealed that the account was fake.
Yet Abbas would be wise to join Twitter today. By so doing, he may be able to create the climate necessary for the continuation of peace negotiations between the PA and Israel. By joining Twitter, Abbas would be able to communicate directly with Israelis assembled on social networks. At the moment, the majority of Israelis learn about the Palestinian president, his views and initiatives from the mass media. Yet the media often offers a narrow and selective view. By conversing with Israelis through Twitter, Abbas may outline his vision for a peaceful solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the Palestinian leader would also be able to articulate Palestinian grievances and possible solutions to such grievances.
Over the past few weeks, Israelis have watched with concern as the PA joined various international treaties, including those enabling the prosecution of Israeli leaders and soldiers in the International Criminal Court. To some this represents a resounding statement that the Palestinians have abandoned the notion of a negotiated peace settlement. Through social media, the Palestinian president could explain to Israelis the motives for such unilateral actions and what he hopes to achieve through them.
However, in order to realize the true potential of digital diplomacy, Abbas should use Twitter as a medium for speaking with Israelis and not at Israelis. For how often do Israelis get to converse with Palestinian leaders? And how often do Israelis get the opportunity to state their own grievances with regard to the ongoing conflict to such leaders? Of course, speaking with Israelis will force Abbas to answer difficult questions. For instance, Israelis will demand to know if Hamas will adhere to a negotiated peace accord and, if not, how can peace still be achieved. Others may question why the PA condemns terrorism yet makes financial payments to families of terrorists. Finally, many Israelis will want to learn the Palestinian answer to the major hurdles of peace, namely, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem.
Upon joining social media, Abbas will lean that Twitter is not an effective propaganda instrument. This is due to the fact that digital diplomacy followers are well informed and can thus distinguish between information and propaganda. But he will also learn that social media is a powerful tool for those willing to open channels of dialogue.
Ultimately, peace is not made by two leaders; it is made by two nations willing to overcome history for the promise of a better future. Through Twitter, the Palestinian president may lay the foundations for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and a renewed commitment to the prospect of peace.The writer is concluding his Mass Media studies at Tel Aviv University.
He blogs on the topic of digital diplomacy at www.digdipblog.com.