Netanyahu: Israel winning over Arab world with social media
'Do I write my own stuff? I wish I didn't have to, but I do'

Netanyahu: Israel winning over Arab world with social media

At digital diplomacy conference, PM explains why he prefers Facebook over Twitter and boasts he writes his own posts

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, held at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem. December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, held at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem. December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is banking on social media to win the hearts and minds of the Arab public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday. Many governments in the region already cooperate closely with the Jewish state, but Jerusalem is increasingly taking to Facebook and Twitter in a bid to sway ordinary citizens, he said.

At a Jerusalem conference on digital diplomacy, Netanyahu also discussed his personal use of social media, saying he writes his own posts and is satisfied most by his viral videos addressed to the people of Iran.

“I think that the offer of peace will go more and more through social media, rather that through governments,” he said, speaking in English.

Israel has “very good relations” with many of its Arab neighbors, he noted. But in order to turn the still-clandestine ties into real peace, the Jewish state will “have to punch through the web of lies that have been said about Israel for 70 years and have been implemented in the minds of various publics.

“To do that, we have to get to the publics. We already have a different relationship with regimes and the governments. But we want to get to a different relationship with the people — and that you do through social media,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the International Conference on Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on December 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Addressing foreign officials from more than 30 countries at the Foreign Ministry’s International Conference in Digital Diplomacy, Netanyahu cited once again a new poll that purports to show Arab citizens’ increasing desire for their governments to establish ties with Israel.

The poll, commissioned by the Foreign Ministry, has been criticized by experts for its methodology, but Netanyahu this week cited its results in various forums.

The poll’s results testify to “extraordinary change in the Arab world,” Netanyahu gushed. “We see a growing readiness to accept the State of Israel in diverse parts of the Arab world. This is what gives me the greatest hope for peace — that is, the ability to get directly to Arab citizens of these countries and talk to them — because many of the governments are already there.”

In using social media, Israel’s goal is to break through “the crust of slander, the crust of deception, the crust of this false narrative that has been created on Israel — this wonderful democratic, vibrant country that produces so many things that can better our lives — to get the Arab men and women on the street, the merchant in the souk, the child in school, to understand that they can benefit from Israel,” he said.

“That can only happen through social media. It is happening. This is the main part of our focus. It is not merely dispelling the lies, it’s propagating the truth.” Netanyahu added: “I think truth is a powerful weapon. It’s getting harder and harder to suppress.”

Addressing European diplomats, he said, “I ask that your actual policies toward Israel be no more and no less than the policies of the Arab world — the actual policies of the Arab world. That is good enough for me.”

There’s been a sea change in Arab governments’ attitude toward Israel, even if it’s not reflected in public statements, he said.

“But if you knew the wealth of confidence, the wealth of friendships, the commonality of interests, and in some basic sense — even though our societies are very different — the hope for a better, freer, more liberal future for our peoples, then you’d understand that there’s been a pivot in Israel’s standing, not only in the world but also in the Middle East,” he said. “And that ought to be reflected, certainly, in the way your governments see Israel. It’ll take some time, but I think eventually everybody will get there.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu answers questions on Twitter live, at his residence in Jerusalem, as Israel celebrates its 68th Independence Day. May 12, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

At the conference, Netanyahu also discussed his own experiences using social media. His “favorite internet moment,” for instance, is receiving responses from Iranian citizens to his videotaped messages to them, he said.

His latest post directed to the Iranian people, published Monday, has been viewed more than a million times.

“They say thank you, thank you for differentiating between me and the regime. They’re very brave. It’s very moving for me,” he said.

I never imagined I'd say this…

I never imagined I'd say this, but I think Iran's hostility to Israel can be summed up by the experience of a single Iranian wrestler named Alireza.A few days ago, Alireza was about to beat a Russian wrestler in a world championship, and then his coach ordered him to lose the match. The reason? Because in the next round, Alireza would have had to face an Israeli wrestler. You see, Iran forbids its athletes from competing against Israelis. Now that's not surprising given that the regime in Tehran calls for the destruction of all Israelis, the destruction of Israel. Now, that's not going to happen, I assure you. We won't let that happen.But in the meantime, it's the people of Iran who pay the price. When his coach told Alireza to throw the match, he said his whole world seemed to come to an end. Just imagine, a government forbidding its athletes from competing against blacks, gays or Arabs.Close your eyes and think about Alireza for a moment. He trained countless hours; he dreamed of becoming a world champion. But the Iranian regime would rather see its athletes lose than compete against Israelis. So I have an idea. This is an idea that will honor and inspire future Alirezas buy promoting exactly the kind of coexistence and tolerance that Iran tries so hard to stamp out. I want you to film yourself playing a sport against someone of a different nationality, a different faith or different color. I want you to compete like hell—we're all for competition. Then I want you to shake hands, go out for a drink together, and then upload this to the social media. I want you to show Iran's regime that hating others will never make you a champion. It only makes you a pathetic and insecure loser.Winners aren't afraid to show tolerance and respect. Alireza, I want you to know that the tyrants who made you take a fall will fall themselves. A regime that crushes the creative and competitive spirits of its people—that regime is doomed. So are those who threaten to destroy the Jewish state. They'll go down for the count.

Posted by The Prime Minister of Israel on Monday, 4 December 2017

Netanyahu praised his communications team and his advisers, but appeared to reserve most of the credit for his posts for himself. “Yes, I’ve had some people write tweets for me, but I write them myself and I am a very exact editor,” he said. “Do I write my own stuff? I wish I didn’t have to, but I do.”

Netanyahu prefers Facebook over Twitter, he said, adding that one of the main challenges in using social media is to compress a message into a limited number of characters. He also criticized the fact that social media activity often turns into “instant referendums,” leading politicians to chase “likes” rather than focus on advancing the right policies.

“I am not naturally there, but I have to adapt, so I’m adapting, so I release tweets,” he said. “You might as well enjoy it.”

In his talk and a subsequent 35-minute Q&A session, he did not address his more controversial social media moments, such as when he posted a video on Election Day warning that Israel’s Arabs citizens are coming “in droves” to the polls, or when he praised US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall with Mexico.

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