The Arab world has officially blacklisted Israel. But new media technology is allowing the government of Israel and individual Israelis to directly communicate with Arab people across the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently ordered his staff to set up direct lines of communication with Arab Internet surfers. Netanyahu is scheduled to hold an open chat with Arab users of Facebook and Twitter in the near future.
Ahead of that online appointment, Netanyahu's spokesman to the Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, held a preliminary chat with those same users. Gendelman was surprised to find himself actively engaged, and not only by those taking the opportunity to spew hostile remarks at an Israeli representative.
"We knew it would be an interesting experience, but we had no idea we would receive such a wave of interest," Gendelman told Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper. "There is a real thirst for knowledge about Israel in the Arab world."
Gendelman said the sudden widespread usage of services like Facebook and Twitter in the Arab world (adoption of the services increased by 2000 percent in the Arab world in 2011) has granted Israel unfiltered access to the Arab masses.
"A year or two ago, we could only get our message to the Arab masses via Al Jazeera or Al-Arabiyah (satellite networks)," said Gendelman. And the Arab networks were prone to editing the Israeli message in a negative manner. "Now we can have real, direct dialogue like never before."
In his first foray into this arena, Gendelman said he received some 500 questions from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere. Most revolved around the recent "Arab Spring" revolutions in the region, future relations between Israel and Egypt, and whether or not Israel is going to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
While there were many negative remarks made by Arab respondents, particularly from Egyptians, Gendelman said most were quickly shot down by other Arabs who wanted to genuinely engage the Israeli official. "There were Iraqis who wanted to know why there are not diplomatic relations between our two nations," said Gendelman. "Tunisians, Egyptians and Saudis wanted to know when they can come visit Israel."
Israel's Foreign Ministry has also been directly engaging Arab and Iranian web surfers for some months already. Ministry officials regularly hold open chats with and respond to emails from Arab and Iranian visitors to the ministry's Arabic- and Farsi-language websites.