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A Google representative from the company's global headquarters has discussed the decision to use "Palestine," not "Palestinian Territories," across the tech giant's products. At the Knesset committee meeting Wednesday, the Israelis didn't get very far in their attempts to change the American's mind.
Last month, Google changed the way it refers to the territories, and earlier this week, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin wrote Google CEO Larry Page urging him to reconsider.
In his letter, Elkin wrote that Google's move in effect recognizes the existence of a Palestinian state. Such a decision is not only mistaken but could impair the government's efforts to restart direct talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor offered a slightly different view. Israel “has no position vis-à-vis Google, which is neither a political nor a diplomatic entity with any authority to recognize states,” he told Haaretz.
In late May, Israel's consul general for the northwestern United States, Andy David, handed Google representatives a letter. The Foreign Ministry says the Google people promised that the company would now update Israel about similar changes, even though it might not consult with it.
This is Israel's sole diplomatic gain in the battle so far.
Meanwhile, MKs Nachman Shai (Labor) and Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) requested that the Knesset draw up “an urgent proposal regarding Google and Israel.” They explained their grounds.
“Israel’s public diplomacy has suffered a serious setback .… In the war for public awareness of Israel’s situation and in the battle against the campaign against Israel’s delegitimization, the Palestinians have scored a major victory," they said in a statement.
"Although Google is not a state, its decisions carry much weight in this global network we all use. The Knesset should carefully study how Israeli public diplomacy can deal with such challenges and why it has failed in this instance.”
On Wednesday, the Knesset Science and Technology Committee discussed the Google issue. Google sent from California a member of the Google Maps team, Charlie Hale. Israel sent Elkin, Shai, Hoffman and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), the committee's chairman.
Our position is very simple. We do not think such an important company should be a forum in which political decisions are made, said Elkin.
The establishment of a Palestinian state is a topic in the public discourse, and is also under discussion by the international community, he added. Israel’s position is simple. If and when a Palestinian state is established, it will be created based on negotiations and a signed agreement. This point is enshrined in agreements that Israel has signed such as the Oslo Accords.
“You are subjecting Google to a drumhead court-martial, as if we were the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee rather than the Science and Technology Committee,” MK Afou Agbaria (Hadash) told Elkin.
The very laws of nature
Most of the world uses Google's services, Gafni said to Hale. "And
with one word Google can change the very order of things. Whether I am living in Micronesia or in Europe, when I open Google, I find that your company has changed one word, which, in turn, changes the very laws of nature," Gafni said, adding that he did not want to get into a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Your company has changed one word, has changed one key that your users employ and – presto – Google is participating in that discussion. Yet you are not supposed to be a participant.”
Incidentally, Yahoo! Maps also refers to the “Palestinian Territories” as “Palestine,” as was pointed out by attorney Jonathan Klinger, who took part in the discussion.
Gafni gave the floor to Hale. But Doron Avni, Google Israel’s senior policy and government relations manager for the region, hastened to exempt Google’s local branch from any responsibility in the matter. The decision revolves around geographic policy, which is under the jurisdiction of Google's global headquarters in Mountain View, California. Only then did he allow Hale to speak.
Actually, he allowed Hale to read out a written statement:“Honorable Chairman and Members of Parliament, I wish to thank you for inviting us to participate in this discussion.
“My name is Charlie Hale and I manage Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google’s geo products, which includes Google Maps and Google Earth. I came from Google’s headquarters in the U.S. because we think this issue is very important and appreciate the opportunity to speak directly with you about our general process for updating products.
“Google is committed to providing users with the most comprehensive and useful maps possible.
“I wish to stress that as part of this process, we merely try to reflect the state of international naming standards. We have no interest in being the arbiter of political disputes. I want to make it absolutely clear that in making these decisions we are in no way taking a political stance.”
Hale read out Google’s official position, under which the selection of geopolitical names is based on decisions by organizations such as the United Nations, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the International Organization for Standardization.
“I am here today,” he went on, “to continue the discussion we started with Consul General of Israel Dr. Andy David a few weeks ago on our campus in California, and to explain our line of thinking and assure you that the step we took is consistent with our regular technical process for updating products, and is by no means political.
“I look forward to a productive discussion, and I would like to thank you Mr. Chairperson once again for your invitation, and for allowing me to speak before the committee.”
A perverse Q&A
Although he said he looked “forward to a productive discussion,” Hale had no intention of discussing the matter. When he was asked questions, he repeated passages from his written statement.
“Wouldn't it have been better if you discussed the issue with us before making your decision?” Elkin asked, adding another question. “Can we expect Google to reconsider its decision?”
The first question had been answered in that meeting between Google and Israeli Consul General David. Regarding the second question, Hale said Google appreciated the sensitivity of the issue. That's why he had come all the way from California. Google is aware of the implications, but the company is simply reflecting what other organizations are doing.
“I think you have exceeded the limits of your mandate,” said Shai.
As punishment for Google’s refusal to comply with the MKs' requests, the committee began a dull discussion on online public diplomacy. The high point was a presentation by Daniel Simon, deputy director general for public diplomacy at the Prime Minister’s Office. The presentation included a slide on the “beating heart of public diplomacy” – and a sketch of a heart.
The discussion was nearing an end. The MKs hadn't given up hope and tried once more. “If Google rescinds its decision, we'll stop criticizing it,” Shai said in a conciliatory tone.
Gafni asked Hale to tell headquarters: Please return to the previous situation regarding Palestine’s status. If Palestine becomes a state, you can make the change.
A reporter then tried to conduct a short interview with Hale but he was surrounded by Elkin, Gafni and Avni, who stood beside him for a joint photo. He was then asked whether Google had received complaints from other countries about its naming policy.
But Noa Elefant-Loffler, director of policy and government relations at Google Israel, interrupted, saying Hale wasn't conducting any interviews and one should turn to the company’s spokesperson. Then Hale repeated a sentence he had read out earlier.