Israel’s Facebook diplomacy

Israel’s Facebook diplomacy

The Foreign Ministry’s Arab-language profile reached 100,000 followers this week. They all click ‘Like,’ but many use it to post calls for genocide

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Foreign Ministry's Lior Ben Dor in his Jerusalem office (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)
The Foreign Ministry's Lior Ben Dor in his Jerusalem office (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

Lior Ben Dor, the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic media spokesperson, is a talented portrait sketcher. He’s done portraits of Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Shaul Mofaz. He also likes to sketch portraits of Arab leaders — which he then posts on the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Facebook profile, in order to “connect with the Arab public.”

Launched a bit over a year ago, more or less coinciding with the eruption of the Arab Spring, the ministry’s Arabic Facebook page on Thursday reached the milestone of 100,000 fans. The fact that so many people have said they “Like” the page, however, does not mean that all of them really do. Most people who have reacted to the page chose to post unflattering comments about Israel, a large part actually glorifying past genocides or calling for new ones. But operating the site does serve a constructive purpose, Ben Dor insists.

“I know that it’s a drop in the sea,” Ben Dor, 43, told The Times of Israel this week. “We have absolutely no illusions that most of the people on the site are brainwashed, but within that ocean of hate we do find niches of people who are genuinely interested in what we have to say and to find out more about how we see things. There are people who didn’t buy into the brainwashing, who are really curious and want to find out what we think.”

Such people always existed, Ben Dor asserts, but the social network allows them to come out of the woodwork and approach Israel more easily.

Roughly six items are posted on the site every day —  official statements, summaries of newspaper articles, links to videos showing Israeli Jews singing in Arabic, and so on. “Research showed that six is the ideal number, not too much and not too little,” said Timora Shapira, who is in charge of the ministry’s various Arabic online portals, including a YouTube channel, a Twitter account and the website, which was launched seven years ago.

‘I see it as an investment in the future. Today’s blogger could be tomorrow’s foreign minister’

This week, for example, Ben Dor posted a photo of the American journalist Marie Colvin, who died Wednesday covering the unrest in Syria. In a short post he mentioned that he knew her personally and expressed hope that “perhaps her death will help liberate Syria.”

“We also spend a lot of time responding to questions,” Shapira said. “Naturally, they are more negative than positive, but we’re constantly surprised at how many people are really interested in our views.”

‘Do you really want to rule over the area from the Nile to the Euphates?’

The diplomats’ job is to counter lies and myths about Israel that Arabs might have been fed for decades, said Elad Dunayevsky, who works with Ben Dor and Shapira in the ministry’s digital diplomacy department. “One person recently asked us if it’s true that we want to control the area from the Nile to the Euphrates. We answered his question: ‘No, we don’t.’”

While about half the posts are deleted because they are racist or incite to violence, there is a large amount of “legitimate criticism” of government policies, Ben Dor said.

During a recent visit in Ben Dor’s Jerusalem office, where his pencil-drawn portrait of the late King Hussein of Jordan hangs on his wall, Ben Dor switched on the chat function on his Facebook profile. Within minutes, two users initiated conversations.

“When we created this Facebook account, we opened a virtual embassy in 22 Arab states,” Ben Dor said. “From the distance of the Internet, I can actually reach the people on the street much better than diplomats stationed in our embassies.”

Born in Afula, Ben Dor started learning Arabic in fourth grade. He fell in love with the language and attained a master’s degree in Arabic language and literature from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. After entering the diplomatic corps, he served for two years as spokesman and media adviser in the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Nowadays, one of his preferred ways to engage Arabic-speaking surfers is posting his drawings of their leaders on Facebook. After he recently uploaded a portrait of King Hussein, he received an increased number of friendship requests from Jordan. He posted a drawing of Syrian President Bashar Assad, together with a quote from Foreign Minister Lieberman calling on Assad to step down. Thirteen surfers clicked “Like.”

A screen shot of Ben Dor's Facebook post
A screen shot of Ben Dor's Facebook post

Ben Dor also posted a self-portrait, after which a Syrian surfer, who was also an amateur sketcher, asked him if she could also draw him. He initially agreed, but after he saw on the surfer’s profile that she had in the past drawn sketches glorifying Hitler, he changed his mind.

Visitors from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan; almost none from Syria

Most of the page’s 100,000 followers are Egyptians, followed by Iraqis, Jordanians and Moroccans. Relatively few surfers live in Arab communities in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but that’s not his target group, Ben Dor, says. For some reason, very few people from Lebanon and Syrian liked the site, he adds.

Ben Dor says he is full of enthusiasm whenever he reaches Arabs who are curious about Israel, scared of Islamism in their countries or frustrated with the slow progress of the Arab Spring. He invests incredible resources in having conversations that might — or might not — lead to one single change of heart.

Once, an Egyptian surfer befriended Ben Dor, falsely assuming he was a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Cairo. When Ben Dor clarified the situation, the Egyptian became scared and discontinued the conversation, despite Ben Dor’s assurances that he had nothing to be afraid of.

“We can’t measure right now what kind of an impact we’re really having,” Ben Dor said. “I see it as an investment in the future. Today’s blogger could be tomorrow’s foreign minister.”

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