When Israelis speak in Arabic and Palestinians in Hebrew

While Israel tries to get its point of view across to the Arab world through its new Arabic-language YouTube channel, the Palestinian Authority is placing full-page ads in Hebrew in the Israeli press in an effort to promote the Arab Peace Initiative with the Israeli public. MENASSAT looks at the Middle East's latest PR battle.

BEIRUT, November 21, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a number of online videos in Arabic lately. These clips were posted on the Ministry's Arabic-language website, as well as on YouTube, in a new attempt to promote the Israeli point of view in the Arab world.

As Ofir Gendelman, the Arab media department chief in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told MENASSAT, "Our main mission is to reach the highest number of Arab households and show the Israeli position about the Palestinian Authority in general and the Palestinian crisis in all its aspects."

The idea came as a result of the limited visibility that Israeli officials get in the Arab media, even if they are fluent Arabic-speakers. Also, Israel recently lost an important conduit to the Arab public opinion when it boycotted Al-Jazeera over what it said was  "biased" reporting.

"We decided to address the Arab public opinion directly through the internet, especially since the internet scene in Arabic is buzzing, mainly with blogs and a rising number of internet users," Gendelman said.

'One voice speaking for Israel'

The first Arabic video was posted several months ago, and deal with the prisoners swap operation with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. That video was heavily viewed in the Arab world, Gendelman says, with tens of thousands of people watching it; and the BBC television in both its Arabic and English services broadcast it.

Recently, a new video was posted which directly addresses the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, accusing Hamas of violating the ceasefire – proof that Hamas "is not genuinely interested in the welfare of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip."

"Is Hamas willing to pay in the blood of the people of the Gaza Strip for its follies?" the Israeli spokesman asks.

The initiative suggests that Israel is having difficulty transmitting its official message through the existing media.

"There are many journalists and analysts," Gendelman says, "but our mission is to have one voice speaking for the official Israel, which is what we are trying to do."

But it also says a lot about the growing importance of the internet in the Arab world.

According to Roni Shaked, an Israeli journalist with Yedioth Ahronoth, "changes on the Arab scene, as well as the absence of freedom of speech and expression in the Arab world, are driving more and more Arabs towards the internet to get their information and ideas. They also need to listen to different points of view and this step is a very important one."

"Unfortunately, most Arabs and Palestinians know very little about Israel," Shaked says. "They think it is only a bunch of settlers, an army and an occupation. This is absolutely not true. For example, they don't know what Israel has accomplished in the field of technology, with its colleges, research centers and other facilities. These kinds of videos help them in knowing more about Israel."

"The anti-Semitic mindset is growing fast in the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Thus, you see them hating Jews and talking about them while they have never seen a Jew. They can't know anything about Israel except through the internet. So this is a real success for the foreign ministry.”

'Arab incompentence'

Shaked admits that some Arabic TV channels, such as al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and al-Horra, do put Israeli spokespersons on the air, "but they do so only to show the opposite point of view, not to present the Israeli point of view."

Gendelman is optimistic about the effect of these videos on Arab public opinion about Israel.

But are the Arabs really watching?

For Palestinian journalist Atta Manaa, an expert in Israeli media living in the West Bank, "This step is just another aspect of the continuous Israeli invasion of the Arab world due to the Arab incompetence when it comes to dealing with the internet."

"This will definitely play a major role in promoting the Israeli opinion, since the majority of YouTube users have no specific interests, and hence no intellectual immunity against any program posted on such websites."
Manaa agrees that the great majority of Arabs have a limited knowledge of Israel, because they deal with Israelis as their enemy, with little information about the state.

"I think Israel will succeed, even slightly, in promoting the issues it considers as important, in an attempt to affect the Arab public opinion. However this will not be the case for the Palestinians, since we live in the same place. The effect will therefore be wider with Arabs who do not have to deal with Israel face-to-face."

On the other side of the Palestinian divide, Khalil Abu Layla, a leader in Hamas, was dismissive of the Israeli initiative.

"These Israeli actions come in the frame of normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab countries. It is not surprising to hear what the media reports recently said about Turkey demanding that Israel join the Arab League. This is perhaps a result of the Israeli media activities," Abu Layla told MENASSAT in Gaza.

"These actions are aimed at giving Israel legitimacy and a normal position in the region, and to show itself not as an occupation state that forced and still forces Palestinians to leave their lands."

And Hebrew ads in Israeli newspapers

According to Abu Layla, Israel's media initiative might help in normalizing relations with Arab regimes but not with the Arab people.

"Any effort made by Israel, either by launching Arabic-speaking websites, satellites or radio stations, cannot fool the Arab citizen who considers Israel to be his number one enemy. So I advise Israel to stop these plans which will turn out to be a failure. The thief cannot convince the world that the money he has is his."

Still, the Palestinian Authority seems to think that there is something to be gained by addressing the enemy in his own language.

Only yesterday, the Palestinian Authority placed a full-page ad in Hebrew in a number of Israeli newspapers in an attempt to promote an Arab peace plan first proposed during the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut.

The Arab initiative offers Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an end to Israel's occupation of land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It also proposes "a just solution for Palestinian refugees."

It should be noted that the Israeli reactions to this initiative have been hesitant at best.

In an interview with the BBC, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised the plan as a "sea-change" in Arab policy. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that the initiative could "serve as the basis" for negotiations.

But Israel has never officially agreed to the plan; and the clause about "a just solution for Palestinian refugees" remains a thorny issue.

So the PA advertisement, which appeared in the three main Hebrew-language dailies, is an obvious attempt to bypass the Israeli government, and make the case for the Arab initiative directly to the Israeli public.

Selling the Israeli public

"Fifty-seven Arab and Muslim countries will establish diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for a full peace accord and the end of the occupation," the ad says. It goes on to give the the full text of the seven-point initiative, framed by the flags of fifty Arab and Muslim countries.

(To see a video about the Palestinian ad, go to YouTube.)

Yasser Abed Rabbo, advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has said that the ad was aimed at explaining the Arab peace initiative to the Israeli public.

In an argument similar to Gendelman's, Rabbo suggested that Israelis were unfamiliar with the details of the plan, and have only heard partial and distorted versions from Israeli officials.

He pointed out that even those Israeli politicians who are backing the initiative, "highly contribute in misleading the people, when they claim that the Arab initiative guarantees that the Arab countries will normalize their relations with Israel before reaching a comprehensive settlement of the conflict."

He added that, with the Israeli elections on the doorstep, the Israelis "are showing great interest in the political issues; thus they would be interested in the content of the ads that we will be publishing in the Israeli newspapers during this period."

But the Palestinian initiative also has its opponents.

Palestinian writer and researcher Hani al-Masri harshly criticized the decision to publish ads in Israeli newspapers, saying that "the problem is not the lack of information concerning the Arab initiative, but the fact that Israel is not ready to meet the requirements of any settlement with the Arab World."

Arab media divided

Al-Masri told as-Sharq al-Awsat that the Palestinian Authority should change the way it deals with Israel and the US by informing both that it will suspend its negotiations with Israel until it agrees on the Arab initiative, and stops its continuous attacks on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Arab media commentators are just as divided about the issue.

The pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi hailed the initiative as "an unprecedented step, reflecting a new policy followed by the Palestinian Authority, based on normalization through ads, and dealing with the Israelis as if they were friends that could be addressed in a civilized manner as in the developed countries in Europe and the US."

Hilmi Moussa, editor at the Lebanese daily Assafir, wrote that "those who are behind marketing the Arab initiative in this manner did not take into consideration that the Israeli newspapers have been publishing and writing countless investigative reports and analysis as well as information about the Arab Initiative ever since it was first presented in 2002. This is apart from the support that many Israeli intellectuals expressed about the Initiative."

The initiative "initially faced a small problem where the Israeli officials rejected it but were ready to enjoy the advantages it offered when it comes to public relations. In fact, the Israeli government succeeded in pushing the American administration to ignore the initiative altogether."

Moussa, an expert in the Arab-Israeli conflict ended pessimistically: "It is enough to take one look at the opinion polls concerning the upcoming elections in Israel to realize that the Israelis are on one side and the Arab initiative is on the other."

(Fadi Abu Saada in Bethlehem and Olfat Haddad in Gaza contributed to this report. Walid el Houri and Rita Barotta contributed from Beirut.)


Read opinion articles in Arabic about this subject on Mojtama3 al e3lam al 3arabi.

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