For Israel, Switching the Fax Machine for Facebook Doesn’t Count as Diplomatic Innovation
Whether as a “light unto the nations” or the “start-up nation,” Israelis have long identified themselves as leaders — a globally-shared perception when it comes to tech innovation.
Businesspeople and public figures worldwide flock to Israel to purchase innovative companies and products. And Israeli innovation isn’t just limited to cutting-edge high-tech companies like Checkpoint and MobilEye — it also drives lifestyle brands like SodaStream, which was able to predict global consumption trends and reinvent itself accordingly.
But a significant field has been left behind, unable to reap the fruits of the country’s innovation prowess: Israel’s foreign relations — specifically its foreign service.
It is true that there have been many attempts to renew Israel’s diplomacy visage; for example, Israel’s representatives widely use social network platforms. But this is just old-fashioned diplomacy cloaked in new-fangled clothes.
Ask the average Israeli diplomat if she or he uses innovative tools, and they will surely answer, “Of course, look how active I am on Twitter and Facebook.” Yet upon closer inspection, you’ll find those Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are simply copied and pasted from press releases dictated from Jerusalem.
Regretfully, switching the fax machine for Facebook doesn’t count as diplomatic innovation.
Innovation is knowing how to use cutting-edge tools to achieve ambitious new goals. The business world already knows that big-data analysis can change the result of a negotiation, or that companies can reach new audiences through virtual and augmented reality. The US military was at the forefront of this type of innovative thinking when it developed “America’s Army,” a realistic computer game designed to boost recruitment. The first-person shooter game, which put the player in an American soldier’s combat boots, was immensely popular among young men and women, and successfully rendered the military a highly desirable employer at a time when enlistment levels were low.
Imagine a virtual reality game that could offer an Israeli viewpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or an augmented reality game, like Pokémon Go, that could show how Israeli innovation plays a central role in the daily lives of any smartphone user. This would be a highly effective form of public diplomacy, which aims to reach civilian audiences by speaking in their native language and according to their local customs.
Innovation is more than technology. It is first and foremost a worldview. This was well-demonstrated by the former Israeli ambassador to Norway, Rafi Shutz. In 2017, when he realized that the traditional Israel Independence Day reception was not scoring any diplomatic points, he decided to find a more efficient way to manage his budget. Shutz took a topic that would speak to Norwegians’ hearts and minds — ski-related spinal injuries — and invited to the festivities “ReWalk,” an Israel-based company that developed an exoskeleton that allows people with spinal injuries to walk again.
Thus, on Israel’s Independence Day in 2017, Norwegians were introduced to incredible Israeli technology that is deeply relevant to their lives. The embassy even secured several ReWalk exoskeletons, paid for by the Israeli embassy and an anonymous donor. Ever since, to many Norwegians, Israel is not only linked to its conflict with its neighbors or to the Oslo Accords, but also to life-changing medical innovations.
No one assumes that it is easy to take an old institution, especially from the public sector, and revolutionize its worldview. It will be even harder for the Israeli foreign service, which is fighting a losing political battle within Israel, and has already been stripped of many of its responsibilities. It is perhaps unfair, if not impossible, to expect an institution not adequately supported and funded by its government to adjust to a changing reality.
Precisely because of this, the upcoming Israeli general elections in April are not just an opportunity to rebuild the foreign service, but to reinvent it. No matter what form the future government coalition takes, one of its first steps must be to appoint a full-time foreign minister, and push to launch a deep and significant revolution in the foreign service’s diplomatic approach. It will be incumbent upon the future foreign minister to adopt Israeli innovation as an operational concept — not just a “hasbara” talking point.
A healthy, functioning, and innovative foreign service should be recognized as an Israeli national interest. Lauding Israel’s invention of the USB drive and cherry tomatoes was a fine approach in the early 2000s, but it is time for Israel’s international diplomatic efforts to evolve — and the foreign service can and should lead the way.
Ambassador Ron Prosor is Chair of the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Israel’s former ambassador to the UN. This article was originally published in The Arena–Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs magazine