On July 17th, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer held a Q&A session on twitter aimed at answering questions relating to the current outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas which now includes a ground offensive by the Israeli Army into the Gaza strip named Operation Protective Edge. Twitter followers were asked to submit questions to the Ambassador under the #AskDremer hashtag.
What soon followed has been described by Russia Today as an epic failure and as a complete disaster by the American website Business Insider. Soon after the Q&A session began, the #AskDermer hashtag was dominated by activists lambasting the Ambassador, Israel and the Israeli Army. Such tweets often included strong language, graphic imagery as well as cartoons depicting Israeli soldiers as Nazi soldiers asking “what’s the difference”?
Yet despite the hostility aimed at the Ambassador, the Q&A session was not terminated but rather continued with Dermer responding to criticism aimed at himself, Israel’s foreign policy and the morality of Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Moreover, Dermer took time to articulate Israel’s stance with regard to Hamas, the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and Israel’s insistence that the current escalation of violence was the result of Hamas’s refusal to accept an Egyptian cease fire proposal.
While I do not necessarily subscribe to Dermer’s opinions, or to Israel’s policy with regard to Hamas, I find this Q&A session to be a stellar example of digital diplomacy rather than an epic disaster. Israel’s Ambassador decided to engage with twitter followers, supporters and opponents of Israel alike, in order to promote dialogue and understanding and offer insight into Israel’s domestic, security and foreign policy. I find it quite remarkable that a diplomat was willing to engage with audiences mid-way through a violent international crisis.
It is hard to imagine what a Q&A session with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov would have looked like midway through the Crimea Crisis especially since unlike Dermer, most diplomats have not participated in such debates during times of crises. Presumably, both the Ambassador and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is quite verse in digital diplomacy, knew the challenge they were up against when organizing the twitter Q&A. Thus, their decision to hold the session is even more admirable.
Dermer’s willingness to engage with foreign publics in a time of crisis serves to demonstrate that digital diplomacy can only reach its potential when diplomats are willing to answer tough question at tough times and not flee from criticism, harsh as it may be. In the world of digital diplomacy, world leaders and diplomats can no longer afford to hide in the trenches but must follow in Dermer’s example.