Digital diplomacy with an enemy state

In rare gesture, Jerusalem expresses sympathy for Iraqi terror victims

In post to Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page, Israel hopes for the ‘establishment of normal relations’ with Baghdad

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Civilians inspect the site of a bomb attack near restaurants and coffee shops filled with customers in central Baghdad's busy commercial Karradah neighborhood, Iraq, Sunday, May 3, 2015 (AP/Hadi Mizban)
Civilians inspect the site of a bomb attack near restaurants and coffee shops filled with customers in central Baghdad's busy commercial Karradah neighborhood, Iraq, Sunday, May 3, 2015 (AP/Hadi Mizban)

In a friendly gesture to a country Israel still formally considers an enemy state, the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday empathized with the victims of two major terror attacks in Iraq earlier this week and called for closer ties between Jerusalem and Baghdad.

A short text posted to the Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page expressed the wish for normalization.

“Israel expresses great sorrow and shock at the deaths of innocents in terror attacks, and hopes that peace and stability will return to Iraq,” the text reads. “Israel extends its hand to its neighbors and waits for the day when the political circumstances will be conducive to the establishment of normal relations and fruitful cooperation for the benefit of all the peoples of the region.”

في اعقاب العمليتين الإرهابيتين في بغداد:تعرب إسرائيل عن بالغ اسفها وصدمتها حيال ازهاق ارواح الابرياء في عمليات الإرهاب…

Posted by ‎إسرائيل تتكلم بالعربية‎ on Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On Monday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Iraqi capital’s Tayyaran Square, killing 38 people and injuring dozens. The twin attack shattered hopes that the country would stabilize after years of war and armed insurgencies.

“When it comes to humanitarian matters, we don’t really care whether there are diplomatic relations or not,” said Yonatan Gonen, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language digital diplomacy unit. “Our aspiration is that the situation in the region, including in Iraq, becomes quieter. We’re in the post-ISIS era and want more stability. That’s important to Israel as a country.”

Since Saddam Hussein was deposed some 15 years ago, Israel has observed that there is a “less hostile approach compared to other Arab countries,” Gonen said. “It’s important to note that we have no conflict with Iraq or the Iraqi people, we have not territorial dispute with them, they have no border with Israel. Our hand is stretched out in peace to all countries.”

Iraqi civilians fleeing walk past the destroyed al-Nuri mosque as Iraqi forces continue their advance against Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Expressions of sympathy for the Jewish state from “the entire social spectrum in Iraq have dramatically increased recently,” he added.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry’s post on Monday’s attack had garnered 1,600 likes and more than 900 comments.

The Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page has nearly 1.4 million fans — more than twice as many as the English site — including 100,000 from Baghdad alone, according to Gonen.

“Due to the high number of Iraqis who follow us and because of the severe terror attack, we wanted to express our solidarity with their pain and suffering,” he said.

According to Israeli law, citizens are prohibited from going to Iraq, which is formally considered an enemy state.

On a map of Israel’s foreign relations Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented in the Knesset last year, Iraq was one of five countries identified as enemy states (the others were Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea). Other Arab states, including many with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, were not marked as enemy states.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows his map of Israel’s world relations, at a session of the Knesset State Control Committee, on July 25, 2016. To his side is committee chair Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before the condolences were posted on Facebook Monday, several diplomats and other officials deliberated on the matter, including some of Netanyahu’s close advisers, according to Gonen. The Israeli gesture was covered in the Iraqi press, but the political echelon in Baghdad has entirely ignored it, he said.

Earlier this winter, Israel offered humanitarian aid to Iraqi and Iranian victims of a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds in the neighboring countries.

“I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq from this week’s earthquake. And I saw these heartbreaking images of men and women and children buried under the rubble. So I am proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster,” Netanyahu said on November 14. Hours later an official in his office said the offer was immediately rejected.

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