Israel’s Efforts to Engage Arab World Achieve Results
JNS.org – Galvanized by the common threats of Iran and Islamic extremism, Israel and Sunni Arab states have seen an unexpected warming of relations in recent years. Yet despite public and closed-door cooperation, Israel still remains deeply unpopular in the so-called “Arab street.”
Drawing on its high-tech prowess and unprecedented social media opportunities, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has strongly embraced new media channels to reach millions of viewers directly, including in the Arab world.
Ofir Gendelman, Netanyahu’s spokesman for the Arab media, told JNS.org that in recent years, “Israel has become a powerhouse of public diplomacy … [in] the Arab world.”
“Israeli officials are now regularly interviewed on main Arab TV channels and Israeli pundits offer their insights,” he said, adding that Israel is also active on social media platforms in Arabic. With the aid of Arabic language spokespeople in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the IDF, there are millions of followers on the Israel’s Arabic Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Yet, despite these efforts, years of antisemitic and anti-Israel messaging by Arab governments are sometimes difficult to overcome.
“The reactions we are getting are varied: some curse and make threats, [because] this is a main characteristic of discourse on social media in the Arab world,” Gendelman said. “But a lot of Arabs from the region show positive interest in Israel.”
Netanyahu, speaking at an event earlier this month that was hosted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, noted that the current shift in Arab sentiment towards Israel is more profound today than at any time since the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, and the 1994 Israeli peace treaty with Jordan.
“What’s happening now with the Arab bloc states has never before happened in our history — even when we signed agreements,” Netanyahu said, according to Israel’s Channel 2. “What we have now is greater than anything else during any other period in Israel’s history.”
Despite the positive trend, many of Israel’s Arab neighbors have yet to engage in direct relations with the Jewish state. Further, the prime minister chided the Palestinians for not following the regional trend of rapprochement with Israel.
Gendelman said that Netanyahu’s statement that relations between Israel and the Arab states are improving, “is reflected in a growing number of positive articles about Israel that were published in various Arab newspapers.”
Gendelman is also active himself on social media. His Twitter account, which posts in Arabic and English, has over 46,000 followers.
“Hostility towards Israel is still widespread in the Arab world, but Israeli public diplomacy in Arabic can give the Arab digital generation the truth about Israel and its people,” he added.
The Israeli government needs to look at the big picture and take a comprehensive approach to anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment in the Sunni Arab world, said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank — and the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
“Israel has not developed an effective hasbara (public relations) strategy regarding anti-Israel and antisemitic attitudes both in the Arab world and in the West,” asserted Cohen, who has more than 25 years of experience in strategic communications.
“It is absolutely vital to identify credible opinion leaders and work with them incessantly and systematically to promote a positive and friendly image of Israel for the Arab elites and the [Arab] street,” he added.
Social media and traditional media are particularly important in that regard, he said. Cohen also noted that more openings exist than ever before, as central controls of the 20th century state-run propaganda are becoming weaker.
“Strategically deepening, legalizing and formalizing relationships with the Sunni states, and not allowing them to [keep] relations ‘in the closet’ is extremely important for the legitimacy and long-term survival of Israel in the Middle East,” Cohen said.