THE BLOG

Social Media as a Platform for Dialogue in the Middle East

How can a conflict to which writers have devoted entire books, and which journalists attempt to explain in a few thousand words of copy be encapsulated in a mere 140 characters? This was the central question posed by the New York Times reporter who interviewed me for an article he was preparing about the initiative to hold a press conference on Twitter during the war in Gaza a year ago. This question was essentially a paraphrase on a comment by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who, in a tone that was part query and part criticism, voiced the same concern live, regarding the first press conference in history ever held by any governmental body on Twitter.

Last week the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, inaugurated a new YouTube channel, where he calls citizens from all over the world to share their thoughts with him, emphasizing his desire to "hear" what they have to say - to "hear" their words and not to "sound" his own. For the first time an Israeli leader is prepared and willing to engage in a non-hierarchical dialogue with world public opinion through a direct and unmediated channel. Coming from an Israeli leader, this development is unusual, unique, and extremely unexpected. With the initiative to create a YouTube channel, Peres has joined rank with a select number of world leaders who have embraced technological progress, among them President Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, and Queen Rania of Jordan.

For some time now I have been following with interest the dialogue that Queen Rania has been holding over the social network sites with citizens from around the world. The goal of this dialogue is to improve the image of the Arab world in Western eyes and to try and explain that Islam is not synonymous with terror, and that not every Arab citizen is a potential terrorist. This welcome initiative by Queen Rania, which has been harshly criticized in Jordan, is held only in English, and is oriented to the Western public. Yet since it is held in English it cannot be viewed as an internal Arab dialogue, in which citizens of the Arab world might also share their views with their leaders. Nonetheless, the initiative is important - a significant, if small step, indicating openness to dialogue.

Unlike Queen Rania, President Peres was chosen by the Israeli parliament; unlike the Queen, Peres has inaugurated the YouTube channel in Hebrew and in English, in order to engage in conversation with the citizens of his country aswell; and, unlike Queen Rania's, his YouTube channel will eventually be translated into other languages, Arabic among them. Despite the differences between the approaches of these two leaders, this is an important development, in which key statesmen and public figures are engaging in dialogue with citizens of the world and not only with the citizens of their own country. As such, it represents a new phase in the evolution of public diplomacy. Unlike the past, when transparency and accountability were demanded of democratic leaders vis-à-vis their voters, today these leaders are also involved in dialogue with international public opinion and with a global citizenry. This is a revolution that could only have taken place thanks to the existence of internet-based social networks.

The answer I gave to the New York Times correspondent one year ago is still valid today:

Since the definition of war has changed, the definition of public diplomacy has to change as well.

I was referring to the need of governments to adapt to progress. This answer is also true in times of peace: as the definition of the media has changed, now that social networks have emerged as a central source for information, governments and state leaders must embrace social networks and use them as a platform for conveying their messages in a direct and unmediated fashion. It is time for direct and frank dialogue between governments and global public opinion. Today this is a real possibility for leaders, and it lies directly at their fingertips, within reach of the keyboard.

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