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Conservatives opt for Twitter diplomacy in the Gaza conflict

Vivian Bercovici, with Foreign Minister John Baird, is a big supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government.

Government of Canada photo

Canada has never done diplomacy like this before. Vivian Bercovici, the Canadian ambassador in Tel Aviv, is online and unequivocally in sync with Israel's government, at a time when it is locked in a conflict in Gaza.

The narrative that she's written on Twitter, in bursts of 140 characters or fewer, has garnered notice. It's not traditional diplomacy. It echoes Israel's government. And it's very different from the things her fellow ambassadors from pro-Israel allies, such as Australia or the U.S., are tweeting.

This is new, even though the Israel-Hamas conflict isn't. Canadian diplomats took to social media slowly, mostly in the past year. And Ms. Bercovici isn't a career diplomat: She's a political appointee recruited six months ago precisely because she's sympatico with the pro-Israel views of Stephen Harper's Conservatives. She tweets like it, too.

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The online Times of Israel noticed her pro-Israel tweets, and suggested in an article this week that they cross, "or at least skirt," the line between diplomacy and advocacy. Roland Paris, University of Ottawa research chair in international security, suggested his Twitter followers check out her feed for a glimpse of the Harper government's Mideast policies. "Looks like communications channel of Israeli [government]," he tweeted.

A lot of Ms. Bercovici's Twitter stream is tweets of Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An aide to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Rick Roth, noted, as tweeters do, that retweeting doesn't necessarily mean an endorsement; she's reflecting Israel back to Canadian followers. And many of Ms. Bercovici's tweets have been about events in Israel, notably about the disruptions caused by Hamas rockets fired into Israel.

Ms. Bercovici's tweets aren't pre-approved in Ottawa, but they are expected to be roughly in line with Canadian policy. And Mr. Baird's office has no complaints.

Her following is modest. But her tweets are part of Canada's social media presence in Israel, and about Israel. And it's very different from other nations' tweets, in substance and tone.

"'Activists' disseminating lies & hatred: ask yourselves y u r silent when Israeli civilians targeted by #hamas rockets #IsraelUnderAttack," Ms. Bercovici tweeted last Friday.

On the same day, Australia's ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, tweeted this: "Concerned by #Gaza escalation; urge all effort to minimise civilian casualties. Condemn Hamas for repeatedly refusing to agree to ceasefire."

One tweet doesn't stand for either ambassador's overall message, but they illustrate some of the difference. Ms. Bercovici's tone is more advocate's argument than standard diplomatic style. Some of the substance is different, too.

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The point of Ms. Bercovici's July 18 tweet – underlining Hamas's barrage of rockets aimed at civilians in Israel – was also made by other Western ambassadors on Twitter, who condemned the rockets and expressed support for Israel's right to defend itself.

But the Canadian ambassador hasn't picked up a theme that her colleagues, such as Mr. Sharma and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, have repeated: calling on both sides to minimize civilian casualties.

"That's a key point that has been missing in almost all of Canada's official communications on this crisis," said Mr. Paris. The Canadian government seems to be working against calls for restraint to avoid civilian casualties, he said, "characterizing expressions of concern as moral equivalence" between Israel and Hamas.

But Ms. Bercovici's tweets are in line with Canadian government policy, Mr. Paris noted. Canadian policy and Israeli policy are now in lockstep. In a conflict where part of the battle is over the narrative, Canada is probably doing what Mr. Netanyahu's government would like it to do, he said. It's probably only marginally effective, he believes.

Ms. Bercovici's tweeting won't shake the world. Her Twitter followers number fewer than 2,000. It appears slightly more than 100 are in Israel – most are in Canada. That doesn't account for reach through retweets and mentions, but her critics seem more active than her supporters, accusing her of being a propagandist and of taking a one-sided view of the conflict's victims.

But in Ottawa, the government is happy. Mr. Roth said her job is to represent the Canadian position, "which she's done very well."

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