Meet the Israelis reaching out to the Arab world online

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Meet the Israelis reaching out to the Arab world online

Glance at social media and it’s clear the Abraham Accords have made much of the Arab world curious

Sapir Miz Levi holds a a depiction of Morocco–Israel relations
Sapir Miz Levi holds a a depiction of Morocco–Israel relations

As Jerusalem basks in the peace deals signed in September, a surge of curiosity about Israel in parts of the Arab world is creating a buzz online.

Traffic to Arabic-language social media pages run by Israel has rise by 40 percent since its normalisation agreement with the United Arab Emirates. “Before the Abraham Accords, it was 70 million views a month, but now it got much bigger, to 100 million,” Yonatan Gonen  tells Jewish News, adding that recent agreements with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have also contributed to traffic. 

The head of a 10-person Israeli Foreign Ministry team that works out what Arabic-speakers in different countries would find most engaging in relation to Israel, Gonen says: “The peace agreements seem to make people feel it’s more okay to find out about Israel, and we’re not only seeing more views, but the number of positive comments grew significantly too.”

The national flags of Morocco and Israel. ‘Now people are unafraid to share our content’

In fact, he reports that one in three people who view a post or story somehow engage with it, by liking, sharing or commenting – far higher that the average online. And while this figure is partly fuelled by critics who write expletives or criticise Israel, some 70 percent of comments are positive.

Engagement with government-run sites tells only part of the story of the Arab interest in Israel online, according to Dr Barak Bouks, a communications expert at Bar Ilan University.

“You can sense a new vibe of curiosity and of support for Israel,” he tells Jewish News, saying he sees the trend across a range of pages, even those of some Israeli news sites, where Arabic speakers appear to be taking the effort to read via Google Translate. Bouks says the Arab Spring brought about a mindset change in the Arab world. As activists largely organised themselves and publicised on social media, it led to a sidelining of traditional media and an unprecedented embrace of Facebook and other networks for information, which has grown ever since. 

Gonen’s unit capitalises on this openness to social media using a range of accounts. The newest is TikTok, the video-sharing platform popular with young people. The four main platforms are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. As well as general Arabic-language accounts, there are special pages targeting specific areas, such as the Gulf.

One of the most popular posts in recent weeks was a cartoon depicting Israel and various Arab states in the same boat and Iran as a shark in the surrounding waters. It tapped into a feeling that the interests of Arab states and Israel are aligned, with Iran a common threat. 

Some content presents an Israeli perspective on the conflict with the Palestinians, or just dispels misunderstandings. “There are a lot of conspiracy theories about Israel on social media,” says Gonen. “People even think that the Hatikvah has lyrics like, ‘You need to kill Palestinians.’ So we published the song, simply to show what the lyrics actually are.”

Many of the posts seek to give people a glimpse of the country that exists beyond the conflict, and videos of a Foreign Ministry employee talking to ordinary Israelis amid the high-rise towers of Tel Aviv get instant traction. “What’s special in our activity is that we’re focused on putting forward what we consider the real face of Israel,” says Gonen. 

“We talk about diversity, about coexistence between Jews and Arabs and about innovation. It’s everything you won’t see in the traditional Arab media, which looks at Israel just through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re trying to extend the view that people take.”

Surprisingly, one country where posts are particularly popular has no normalisation with Israel on the horizon: Iraq. 

“There, we saw in the past few years that we get very good and positive responses, far beyond than other countries in the Arab world,” Gonen says. ‘So we opened a special page that has information on the Jewish heritage in Iraq and about the good relations that existed between Jewish and Arab people there before the establishment of the state of Israel. And we talk about the community of Iraqi Jews in Israel and bring their stories.”

Yonatan Gonen is seeing positive comments

The unit has existed for a decade, with significantly increased activity in the past year. It is constantly rushing to push out new material, trying to shape hearts and minds, in a way that has only recently become possible. 

Gonen says: “Ten years ago we just couldn’t speak with such a large audience in the Arab world, in places where we don’t have diplomatic connections. The gatekeepers, meaning officials and the traditional media, wouldn’t allow communication directly with the public but, with social media, it’s now possible.”

This dynamic means Israel’s Arabic-language social media output isn’t just responding to diplomatic breakthroughs; Gonen thinks it may be planting seeds for future agreements. 

“It’s not the only thing that will pave the way for other peace agreements, but it’s certainly part of it,” he says. “We’ve been talking to people in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates for quite some time, and leaders, if considering a step of peace, need to know what their people think. One way they see this is by looking on social media, so online engagement does create momentum. 

“Especially when it comes to Twitter, we have opinion leaders from media and politics following our accounts. They share our content and comment positively. That’s a big change.”


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