After making friends with Gulf, Israel brings in influencers to reach its people

11 young people from UAE and Bahrain visit Jewish state as part of new group, Sharaka — Arabic for partnership — which aimed to put a human face on normalization

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Participants of a delegation from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates pose for a photograph with residents of the Bedouin town of Zarzir during a visit to Israel on December 16, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Participants of a delegation from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates pose for a photograph with residents of the Bedouin town of Zarzir during a visit to Israel on December 16, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

A group of 11 young Emiratis and Bahrainis Facebooked, tweeted and Instagrammed their way through Israel this month, part of an influence campaign funded by Americans and Israelis aimed at marketing Israel in light of the recent Gulf normalization deals.

The trip was organized by a newly formed organization made up of Israeli Jews and Arabs known as Sharaka (Arabic for partnership), and it grew out of a similar trip to the Gulf recently made by a group of Israel Defense Forces veterans, many of whom are part of both groups.

“We want to make an actual warm peace,” said Amit Deri, who heads both Sharaka and Reservists on Duty, the IDF group (the two groups are technically unrelated to one another).

Deri contrasted the ties he was hoping to foster with the “cold” peace agreements that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan, whose governments maintain significant high-level security ties with Jerusalem, but whose populations generally have a negative view of the Jewish state.

The delegation was made up primarily of young men and women chosen for their social media followings, and come from influential families in the Gulf. One dominant figure on the trip, Amjad Taha, a Bahrain-based British Arab commentator on regional politics, who is deeply critical of Iran and the Palestinians, maintains over 300,000 followers on Twitter. Others have a few thousand followers on Instagram and other platforms.

The group arrived on December 11 and traveled throughout the country, from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights, meeting Jewish, Druze, and Bedouin Israelis along the way, including President Reuven Rivlin, before returning home seven days later.

President Reuven Rivlin (3R) hosts a delegation of Bahrainis and Emiratis in Jerusalem, December 14, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

The idea for the trip came about after a group of 10 Israelis from Reservists on Duty traveled to Dubai, where they met a number of Gulf Arab social activists, whom they invited to come to Israel, Deri said.

The trip was not funded by the Israeli government — the budget was instead provided by private American and Israeli donors, Deri said — but received support in various forms throughout. One of the organizers of the trip, a Druze Israeli woman named Lorena Khateeb is also an employee of the Foreign Ministry.

Just getting into Israel required a special dispensation, since the country technically still bars most non-citizens from entering, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The group’s social media posts and content was heavily supported and shared by official Israeli government accounts, including those run by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the IDF’s Arabic spokesperson Avichay Adraee, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and several other bodies and officials.

Assistant to US President Donald Trump, Avi Berkowitz, also retweeted content produced by the group.

Members of the organization were interviewed, in Arabic, on the i24 news network, which is seen as supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and spoke with a member of Netanyahu’s social media team, Hananya Naftali, on camera. That latter interview garnered upwards of a quarter of a million views on Twitter and tens of thousands more on Facebook.

While the trip received nearly wall-to-wall support from Israel, there has been significant blowback from Arabic-speaking social media users, who have denounced the participants’ warm relationship with the Jewish state.

Israel is no stranger to such influence campaigns, and in non-pandemic times privately funded, government-supported groups regularly bring in minor celebrities, athletes and social media influencers, and others, with the goal of boosting the country’s image abroad — much as Taglit-Birthright and its various offshoots are intended to connect Diaspora Jews to Israel.

The tactic is practiced to various degrees by most other countries as well, as a form of so-called soft diplomacy that melds tourism with advocacy.

While the Israeli campaigns have rarely looked to the Arab world, the recent normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain and those in the works with Morocco and Sudan have raised the prospects of reaching out to a whole new audience.

Deri said the group is already in talks with people from Morocco, as well as four people from Saudi Arabia, which has not yet normalized ties with Jerusalem, but is reportedly considering such a move, about additional visits to Israel.

“We want to build relationships so that these ties last,” Deri said. “Hopefully there will be more countries normalizing ties with Israel.”

The delegation’s first stop upon arriving Saturday was the Israel Museum followed by a traditional Shabbat dinner with diamond dealer Martin Rapaport and his family.

According to Deri, this was at the request of the participants, who wanted to see a “traditional Shabbat meal.”

On Sunday, they visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, which opened specially for the delegation. They then traveled to Tel Aviv, meeting with Israeli students there, then visiting the beach and the historic Neve Tzedek neighborhood.

They met with Rivlin on Monday, then traveled north to the Golan Heights, where trip organizer Deri lives. They visited Mt. Bental near the border with Syria and learned about the security challenges facing Israel from there. That day they also visited the Western Wall and lit Hanukkah candles.

Delegation members from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain participate in the candle lighting ceremony for the 5th night of Hanukkah at the Western Wall Plaza, December 14, 2020. (The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

“The best part of my trip was the visit to the Western Wall,” Taha told The Times of Israel. “Hairs stood up on my arms.”

“I didn’t know what to expect, but this was beyond my wildest expectations,” another participant told The Times of Israel.

A group of three of the female participants went up to the Temple Mount, known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sharif. This was apparently one of the few times that people from the Gulf have visited the holy site without special permission from Israeli authorities.

Though their visit to the Temple Mount took place without any significant altercations, a video of the experience that was later shared on social media garnered harsh criticism and denunciation online, with people accusing the three women of acting as shills for the Israeli government.

The Times of Israel joined the group on December 16, as they visited the home of the al-Heib family in the northern Bedouin town of Zarzir. There they met with the head of the local council and a prominent figure in the Bedouin community, Hassan al-Heib.

The group discussed the similarities between the Gulf states and Israel’s Bedouin population. The UAE, Bahrain and other countries in the Persian Gulf were founded in large part by Bedouin tribes.

Speaking to the group in Arabic, al-Heib told the participants about the history of the Bedouin population’s ties to the Zionist movement, from fighting alongside the pre-state Palmach under Yigal Alon to the continued enlistment of large numbers of Bedouin men to the Israel Defense Forces today, despite not being legally required to do so.

Bedouin politician Hassan al-Heib speaks to participants of a delegation from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates during a visit to the Bedouin town of Zarzir, during a trip to Israel on December 16, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Al-Heib stressed that Israeli Bedouins do not consider themselves to be Palestinians and thus have no quarrel with the Jewish state. He added that while there were “ups and downs,” the State of Israel was generally accepting of its minority populations. Al-Heib was a vocal critic of the so-called nation-state law, which enshrined in legislation that Israel was the home of the Jewish people.

He also joked that since they were all Bedouins, the Gulf states should share their wealth with their Israeli brethren.

That night, the delegation met with Israeli students at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where they discussed Iran, Bedouin tribal politics, and Arabic accents.

But even in the Middle East, 20-somethings are 20-somethings, and so the conversation invariably turned to the topics that truly unite them: television shows, yoga, fashion, travel, and cats.

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