Abraham Accords focuses on people-to-people peace or what is called “warm peace” unlike previous peace agreements Image Credit: Supplied

Diplomacy has undergone several transformations in recent years and has evolved into something quite different from what it was. The Information Age has radically changed several sectors including media, education, politics and certainly diplomacy.

Traditional diplomacy of the past, which was confined to inter-governmental relationships, is no longer the only interface for diplomacy. Strengthening the bond between two countries now also depends on ordinary people, in what is known as citizen diplomacy.

Citizen diplomacy is defined as an unofficial, informal interaction that aims to influence public opinion in order to assist leaders in resolving or managing conflict.

It can explore possible solutions without formal negotiation and citizen diplomats can be professors, researchers, students, business people, athletes, artists, humanitarians, or tourists. In contrast, traditional diplomacy is defined as an attempt by an international envoy or practitioner to improve inter-governmental relations by communicating with another international envoy or practitioner.

The important role citizen diplomacy plays in peace building is particularly evident in complex cases of conflict, especially where mutual misunderstanding due to a lack of communication is an aggravating factor.

Focused on people-to-people peace

What set the Abraham Accords apart was that they focused on people-to-people peace or what is called “warm peace,” unlike previous peace agreements, and for this reason several organisations and networks have since been established.

One such organisation, “Sharaka”, supports this approach to peace only being attainable where people know each other and are able to cooperate in all fields, which serves everyone’s interests.

Although “Sharaka” is a non-governmental organisation whose main goal is to further the idea of citizen diplomacy among the citizens of the Abraham Accords countries, it simultaneously coordinates with government agencies such as embassies and consulates so that its members are incorporated into the peace process at a more formal level.

Thus, the acceptance by diplomats and officials of the idea of citizen diplomacy is crucial, and we have already seen this work in practise during the visit of a "Sharaka" delegation to the United States. The Consulate of Israel to the Southeastern United States under the leadership of Consul General, Anat Sultan, exemplified the successful integration of traditional and citizen diplomacy.

I witnessed for myself the dedicated work of the Consulate in merging traditional and citizen diplomacy, where the skills of “Sharaka” members were utilised by diplomats in the Consulate, led by the Consul General, during the visit to North Carolina and Atlanta this spring, making the visit as successful as possible.

What made the delegation successful is that the Consulate, with the support of the Consul General, realised the importance of citizen diplomacy in achieving its mission of promoting peace and demonstrating the positive impact of the Abraham Accords.

The delegation’s schedule included meetings with governors, members of Congress, the City Council of Raleigh, the Durham Mayor Pro Tempore, officials at the International Civil Rights Museum, and faculty members and students from different universities.

During these meetings, the delegation realised that there are a large number of people, especially in universities, who are opposed to or skeptical of the Abraham Accords. This can be explained by high levels of antisemitism and general ill feeling towards some members of Arab Gulf countries as well as a refusal to accept the Abraham Accords because they were brokered under the Trump administration.

Others cannot accept the Accords as 'peace’ treaties because Arab Gulf countries and Israel have never actually been at war with one another and some argue that peace should first be established between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Resolving deep-rooted conflicts

In light of these reservations, it is clear that the challenges are substantial and undoubtedly relying on just traditional diplomacy will not produce a desirable outcome. Experts in diplomacy say that citizen diplomacy strengthens the role of non-state actors, especially in difficult interstate relations, and helps resolve deep-rooted conflicts which political leaders alone cannot solve.

The Consul General, Anat Sultan-Dadon, is a professional diplomat, who understands the challenges and recognizes the potential of citizen diplomacy. This was evident when she said, “Anti-Semitism is still here, racism is still here, and that is why it’s important to work together.

This delegation is about peace and learning from each other, so that we can reshape the Middle East. It is important that we bring all sides together because only through mutual understanding can we effect change.”

Citizen diplomacy’s distinguishing feature is informal people-to-people interactions but this does not mean they are entirely unofficial. It complements, rather than replaces, state-centric institutional diplomacy, which will continue to be the dominant means by which foreign policy is enacted.

Some foreign policy-makers have argued that the inclusion of non-state actors in public diplomacy can enhance a nation’s soft power. This brings to mind the words of Joseph Nye who wrote that, “soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.”

Therefore, in order for citizen diplomacy to be successful as an effective tool for conflict-resolution, it has to remain unofficial while also being government-directed.

Diplomatic institutions have to take citizen diplomacy seriously and see it as a necessary rather than superfluous component of diplomatic efforts, because of its powers of persuasion, especially when it is under professional supervision.

The Consulate of Israel to the Southeastern United States is exemplary in its use of citizen diplomacy and it would be extremely wise for other diplomatic institutes of Arab Gulf countries to follow the same tack.

Dr Najat Al-Saied is the Media Affairs and Academic Director of Sharaka and Adjunct Professor at AUE. She can be reached at: najat@sharakango.com