Google Palestine and Stephen Hawking
Public relations efforts on behalf of Israel often tout the country’s contributions to science and technology: As Avi Mayer of the Jewish Agency for Israel has written,
With more companies on the NASDAQ than Europe, China, and Japan combined, and more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation, Israel is a veritable wellspring of innovation. Google, Microsoft, and Intel have long had a robust presence in Israel; Apple is reportedly planning to open a third R&D center in the country.
So when, on May 1, Google (GOOG) replaced the term “Palestinian territories” with the name “Palestine” on its Google.ps homepage, the change “hit a nerve,” in the words of Israeli attorney Daniel Seidemann. One week later, news broke that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most famous scientists, would not attend a conference in Jerusalem hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. A statement approved by Hawking announced his intention to abide by the Palestinian-initiated international effort to boycott Israel, “based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there” (as reported in The Guardian).
Proponents of the boycott hailed Hawking’s decision as a major victory, even a “turning point.” Criticism quickly focused on Hawking’s well-known disability — he has suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for decades — and accusations of hypocrisy. “His whole computer-based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel (INTC) team,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin, Israel Law Center. “I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet.”
Hawking has been to Israel four times, but his compunctions about the political situation appear to have grown in recent years. In 2009, during the IDF’s three-week attack on Gaza, he told Al-Jazeera that Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket fire was “plain out of proportion … The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue.” With no negotiations between the two sides since 2008, private people and institutions are taking more prominent roles in attempting to break the impasse. And some companies, like Intel, are now in the spotlight without having sought it: Caterpillar (CAT), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and CRH Plc. (CRH) were recently the targets of a UC-Berkeley student senate divestment bill, because they do business with the Israeli military in the West Bank.
According to Seidemann, “The current Israeli leadership is adhering to a virtual reality — Israelis have inherent rights and attachments, Palestinians only have rights by virtue of Israeli magnanimity — that is visible only from an ideological bunker. When private sector players put them to a reality test, it has an impact.”
That impact was primarily registered by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, described by Reuters as “a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” who told Israel’s Army Radio that Google’s decision “is very, very problematic“:
“When a company like Google comes along and supports this line, it actually pushes peace further away, pushes away negotiations, and creates among the Palestinian leadership the illusion that in this manner they can achieve the result,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “Without direct negotiation with us, nothing will happen.”
Elkin also sent a letter to CEO Larry Page, asking the company to reconsider. “Google has brought about so many positive changes in the world by promoting connections between people and between peoples,” Elkin wrote, according to The Jerusalem Post. “This decision, however, is in contradiction to such aims, and distances the parties from real dialogue.”
So why, if Israel is committed in principle to a two-state solution, with details to be worked out, would a government official object to use of the name “Palestine”?
Seidemann says it’s because the Likud party “is actually split, tactically. Netanyahu pays occasional lip service to the two-state solution, but refuses to articulate, by a map or otherwise, what that means. Indeed, while refusing to put a map on the table, Netanyahu is creating a map on the ground, one which will make any reasonable interpretation of a Palestinian State impossible. Elkin doesn’t even go that far. He opposes a Palestinian state, only noting that his Prime Minister thinks otherwise.”
These two positions have in common the belief that “there is one entitled, empowered national collective to the west of the Jordan River, and that is the Jewish people,” Seidemann said. “Consequently, any move, domestic or international, that implies that the Palestinians have an equal claim to Israelis makes these guys go ballistic. That is precisely the reason that Israel overreacted to Google’s dubbing East Jerusalem as Palestine.”
As precedent for such an official overreaction, Seidemann mentioned the UN General Assembly vote to grant Palestine nonmember observer State status on November 29, 2012, which passed 138-9, with 41 abstentions. The next day, Israel responded by announcing plans to build settlements in a key area of East Jerusalem, which Siedemann called “the doomsday reaction” because of its implications for the two-state solution.
According to Google, that UN vote was the major contributing factor in the company’s own decision to recognize Palestine. In a statement sent to news agencies including Bloomberg, Google spokesman Nathan Tyler said, “We’re changing the name ‘Palestinian territories’ to ‘Palestine’ across our products. In this case we are following the lead of the UN, ICANN, ISO and other international organizations.”
Gaza City resident Sally Idwedar, 32, described the name change as a “breakthrough” towards freedom from the occupation, while acknowledging its limitations: “Although it more than likely won’t change anything on the ground it is symbolic, just as the UN vote was, and shows the WORLD recognizes Palestine.”
“Israel realizes this too, as you see from their objection to what seems to most as a rather insignificant change,” she added.
Mohammad J. Hamed, 15, of Ramallah in the West Bank expressed appreciation of Google’s decision, tempered with realism about the incentives at work. “I’m always pleased to open Google up and know that they recognize Palestine as its own country. I’m glad to see someone that sees Palestinians as human beings, although there is a lot more that can be done to help Palestine.”
“But America is a world built on business,” Hamed continued, “and obviously Google wouldn’t want to do anything that’s too opinionated, so that they may keep their business. It’s all about the money.”
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli entrepreneur and co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, echoed Hamed’s desire for steps that transcend the symbolic. He called the name change “a good move” — “What better symbolism for a virtual state than Google?” — but added, “If Google, this multibillion dollar company, were to invest $100 million in building the Palestinian software and high-tech industry, it would be a lot bigger contribution to making the Palestinian state than Google.ps.” Baskin is currently working as a consultant to Deloitte’s emerging markets division on a USAID-funded project to facilitate Palestinian trade with Israel and the rest of the world.
Also like Hamed, Baskin saw competing business interests at work in Google’s decision. Baskin said there was controversy on social media platforms last month, when Google Israel’s homepage celebrated the anniversary of the Jewish state’s independence. “There were a lot of protests about Google buying into the Israeli-Jewish-Zionist narrative. Google functions all over the world, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, and it has a lot of users and a lot of customers who are not supporters of Israel. So I think this [name change] is Google’s way of being fair to them.”
“And what’s the big deal, really, when you think about it?” Baskin said the statement by the deputy foreign minister, “who is one of the most right-wing members of the Likud party, and a settler himself,” did not touch off wider protest. “It barely made a headline in Israel. No one really cares, as far as I can see.” Hawking’s decision, on the other hand, “is not insignificant,” in Baskin’s view. “This is just another blow to Israel’s fight for legitimacy in the world.”
“I think he has boosted BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] to a new level,” Idwedar said of Hawking. “I hope that U.S. institutions continue the campaign.” She said sanctions are “the best and most logical way to defeat the occupation,” and called BDS “a peaceful way to urge governments to reconsider” their support for Israel’s policies in Palestine.