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Editors' note: This article was originally published in Hebrew in Ha’aretz Daily Newspaper, 13 May 2013.
Google’s recognition of “Palestine” (May 1st, 2013) received worldwide media attention. On Twitter, the announcement was seen as curious, and the tweet “Palestine is recognized by a greater power than the US or Israel – Google”, was re-tweeted many times. Palestinian officials welcomed the move, while the public remained indifferent. In Israel, the Foreign Ministry reacted sharply, and Deputy Minister Ze’ev Elkin sent a letter to Google’s CEO, in which he argued that the move puts the peace process at risk.
Despite the media storm, Google’s recognition of “Palestine” is not surprising. After the establishment of self-government following the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians tried to break through the non-sovereign boundaries of the Palestinian Authority by establishing sovereign and internationally acknowledged technological spaces. In 1997, the Palestinian request to receive the .ps country code top-level domain was rejected by ICANN, the non-profit international corporation responsible for allocating domain names, since at that time the Palestinian Authority was not included in the UN lists of recognized countries and territories.
As an interim solution, the .int domain was allocated in 1998 to the computer center of the Palestinian Authority, and its official websites operated under this address. In 1999 the UN recognized the Palestinian Authority as a territory under the name “Occupied Palestinian Territories”. In the same year, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) assigned the international dialing prefix 970 to the Palestinian Authority. Following the inclusion in the UN list of recognized countries and territories in 2003, ICANN delegated the .ps country code top-level domain to the Palestinian Authority.
Thus, and as a precedent, a political entity without geographical boundaries was granted formal international recognition in technological spaces, even before it was established or recognized by the international community. The Palestinian Authority’s international recognition as a technological space was bounded to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The next step was only natural: After the recognition of Palestine as a UN non-member observer state within the 1967 borders last November, Google has changed the name of the landing page http://www.google.ps Google – “Palestinian territories” to “Google – Palestine” (in Arabic and English).
For Israel, these decisions stand in sharp contrast to the Oslo Accords, which stipulated that the debate on the Palestinian international communications points will be subject to the boundaries to be determined in a future permanent agreement. Two decades after the Oslo Accords, however, given the current political stalemate, the possibility of reaching a permanent agreement seems more remote than ever. Therefore, it is possible to assume that the Palestinians will continue to expand their independence in technological and telecommunication spaces.
Palestinian Minister of Communications, Safa Nasser al-Din, has already announced the intention to ask Google to add “Palestine” to its mapping services, Google maps and Google Earth, to include all roads and streets within the 1967 borders, and to allow users to explore Palestinian heritage sites (starting with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Old City of Nablus). This way, said Minister of Communications, the world will be able to recognize “Palestine” and visit its archaeological sites, and become familiar with the lifestyle and culture of Palestinians, despite the occupation.
Thus, while Israel is fighting the Palestinian Authority and opposes its recognition by the international community as a state within the 1967 borders, within these boundaries “Palestine” is both a UN observer and has just received official status as a sovereign technological space. Consequently, many countries have raised the level of diplomatic representation of the Palestinian Authority to a status of state and international organizations in the field of human rights, sports, culture and society, recognize it as a political entity under occupation. At the same time, the Palestinians are continuing the process of building state institutions.
Palestine should not be seen as a gimmick, a virtual state that exists only on the Internet or on Facebook. It is gradually becoming recognized as a real state by the Palestinians and the international community. Palestinians may see this as a victory in their fight to preserve their national identity, even if the geographical boundaries of the state have yet to be determined.
Yet, Israel may see the recent development as a significant achievement of the highest order as well, since it embodies a departure from the concept of “Palestine” as indicating the land from the sea to the Jordan River. Palestine within the 1967 borders is an historical acceptance of the Palestinians in achieving national independence by establishing a state, and a rejection of the idea of liberating the entire area defined as Palestine. Therefore, the establishment of the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, even in Israel’s interest, requires substantial and rapid progress towards a political settlement.
Google’s move to add Palestine as an official state listed in its services should be seen by Israel as an advantageous opportunity, rather than a matter of concern. In an era where information and communication technologies are deeply intertwined with geographical location, the recognition of another state existing alongside Israel can serve as a “jab of reality” to the Israeli society and its political leadership. In 2010 the Google search engine provided Prime Minister Netanyahu a solution when looking for a fire-fighting airplane to extinguish the Carmel fire. Perhaps the time has come to search Google for a political solution – the answer may already be there.