What’s in a Tweet? The Case of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Mexican Wall

Yesterday evening I was interviewed on an Israeli radio show regrading a recent tweet published by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In this tweet the PM argued in favour of the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico. As usual, I was asked “What’s in a Tweet?”, or how much information can we really derive from a 140 character message?

In this post I will argue that Netanyahu’s tweet, shown below, embodies five attributes of contemporary diplomacy: diplomacy as a two-level game, diplomacy’s networked nature, diplomacy’s public dimension, digital diplomacy as a tool for strategic communication and digital diplomacy as a medium for official communication between governments.

Diplomacy as a Two Level Game

The conceptualization of diplomacy as a two level game, including the domestic and international levels, is not new. Indeed Robert Putnam introduced this concept in the 1980’s. What is novel is the growing use of digital diplomacy channels to play this two level game.  For instance, national leaders must now ratify international agreements in their domestic parliaments. Such was the case with the TTP agreement signed between 12 pacific states. In order to ensure ratification of the agreement by the US Congress, the Obama administration and the State Department used Facebook to demonstrate the value TTP would bring to the American economy (e.g., new jobs, higher wages). Thus, digital diplomacy was used to rally domestic support for an international agreement.

At other times, a national decision must be translated into foreign policy. Such is the case with the Brexit referendum which must now be negotiated by the British government. As part of these negotiations, the British government created a Brexit ministry which is now live-tweeting the Brexit negotiations.

PM Netanyahu’s tweet is emblematic of the use of digital diplomacy in the two level game of diplomacy. The beginning of the Tweet was not intended for US ears, but for Israeli ones. Indeed the PM does not state that the Israeli government, or the State of Israel, erected a wall along the country’s southern border. Rather, the wall was erected by Netanyahu himself – “I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration”.

One would expect such a statement to originate from a domestic politician running for office rather than an international leader. But Netanyahu is indeed running for office. Mired by allegations of corruption, and crippled by police investigations, the PM is fighting for his political life. Thus, he used this tweet to remind his domestic supporters of his achievements in the fields of immigration and national security.

The second part of the tweet, “Great success. Great idea ” was intended for foreign audiences. It is this part of the tweet that aligns Israel with US President Trump and with his immigration policies. As such, the PM used this tweet to announce an important component of Israeli foreign policy- Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the US on issues relating to immigration.

Networked Diplomacy and Diplomacy’s Public Dimension

Scholars and practitioners of diplomacy have described contemporary diplomacy as one that is increasingly networked. The term networked diplomacy relates to the fact that the nation state is losing power while other, non-state actors, are gaining power. In the 21st century, the nation-state’s power is migrating upwards, to trans-national actors such as the EU, and downwards, to NGOs, corporations, civils society groups and even individuals who can now all exert influence over diplomatic processes.

One example of networked diplomacy is a nation’s reliance on civil society groups and activists to achieve its foreign policy goals.  For Israel, the relationship with the US is one of utmost importance. American support for Israel often derives from activists and civil society groups such as evangelical Christians who view the existence of a Jewish state as a religious imperative. Netanyahu’s Tweet was partly directed at these groups. In his Tweet, the PM aligned himself, and Israel, with the US and its current zeitgeist, one epitomized by the Trump White House. It is this alignment that is meant to secure popular support for Israel among Trump’s constituents.

However, such an alignment comes at a certain cost. For in addition to Trump’s constituents, the PM’s tweet was seen by the Jewish Diaspora in the US, an important node in Israel’s networked diplomacy. And this message may have also been utterly rejected by the Jewish Diaspora which is increasingly alienating itself from Trump and his immigration police including the recent Muslin entry ban. The PM may have thus gained support for Israel among one demographic, only to lose support in another. It is in this light that the PM’s tweet may be scrutinized given the growing gap between the liberal American Jewish Diaspora and Israel.

Notably, the PM’s tweet is also emblematic of diplomacy’s public dimension. By using twitter, the Israeli PM was able to communicate directly with Israeli and American audiences thereby bypassing traditional gatekeepers such as the media. Indeed, one of the advantages of digital diplomacy is its ability to foster direct ties between the government of one country and the population of another.

Digital Diplomacy as a Tool for Strategic Communication

The PM’s tweet is also demonstrative of the use of social media for strategic communication. By strategic communication I refer to social media content that resonates with pre-defined target audiences.  Consider, for instance, the wording of the PM’s Tweet- “Great success. Great idea”. This wording is obviously far removed from that of official diplomatic correspondence. Moreover, it is worded as a sound bite or a political slogan given the repetitive use of the word great. Finally, the incorporation of the word great echoes the campaign slogan of Donald Trump “Make America Great Again”.

As such, the Tweet is meant to signal that like the US, Israel is also great. Like the US, Israel also tackles immigration through walls and like the US, Israel is also looking forward to the Trump Presidency. Even more importantly, by incorporating Trump’s slogan the Israeli PM may be identifying himself as a Trumpist world leader.

It is the wording of the tweet that demonstrates that it was a strategic message meant to resonate with three target audiences- Trump supporters in the US, the Trump administration and Israeli right wing voters who view the Trump administration as an important Israeli alley. It was also strategic with respect to its timing coming a few hours before President Trump invited the PM to visit the US. This tweet was perhaps meant to pave the way towards a mutually beneficial state visit.

Digital Diplomacy as Official Communication Between Governments

Notably, the PM’s tweet also demonstrates that digital diplomacy content is now viewed as official communication between governments. Upon seeing the tweet, the Mexican government announced its dismay with the Israeli stance on the wall and the Mexican foreign minister summoned the Israeli Ambassador to a clarification meeting, one of the sticks commonly employed in diplomacy. Additionally, the Mexican government officially demanded that the PM retract his support of the wall and clarify Israel’s position.

As such, it is evident that tweets published by world leaders are not interpreted solely as political statements but as diplomatic ones. Consequently, tweets may have serious ramifications on bi-lateral ties. In the case of the Israeli PM, his support of the wall may cause a rift with the Mexican government which has traditionally sided with in Israel on Palestinian issues.

Finally, it is important to note that like comedy, diplomacy is all about timing. The PM’s tweet was published in close proximity to Trump’s Muslim ban which has led to international condemnation and mass protests throughout the world. While the German and French foreign ministers attacked Trump’s immigration ban on Twitter, the Israeli PM announced his support of the Mexican wall. Whether intentional or not, the PM’s tweet may be seen by many as Israeli support of Trump’s contentious polices. As such, it may soon prove a moral blemish on Israel and its government, one that may cost Israel dearly in the months and years ahead.

When children learn to cross a street by themselves they are told to “look responsibly to both sides”. When teenagers begin to drive, they are told to “drink responsibly”. In the age of digital diplomacy, leaders should adhere to similar advice- tweet responsibly.

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