Israel reaches out to Iraqis on Facebook

Foreign Ministry’s new ‘digital embassy’ seeks to harness war-torn country’s supposed affinity for Israel with page highlighting ‘glorious’ Jewish-Iraqi history

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

The cover page of an Israeli Foreign Ministry Facebook page, 'Israel in Iraqi dialect,' launched in May 2018 (screen shot: Facebook)
The cover page of an Israeli Foreign Ministry Facebook page, 'Israel in Iraqi dialect,' launched in May 2018 (screen shot: Facebook)

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday launched a Facebook page uniquely dedicated to fostering ties with Iraq.

Diplomats in Jerusalem said the Arabic-language page will serve as “some sort of digital embassy” to the war-torn country. Israel, while still formally considering Iraq an enemy state, has in recent months stepped up efforts to reach out to the country, arguing that Iraqis are interested in establishing ties with the Jewish state.

“This will be a digital, virtual Israeli embassy in Baghdad,” said Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson for Arabic media.

“The digital embassy is intended to provide a response to the growing interest that the Arab world is showing in Israel,” the Foreign Ministry’s director-general, Yuval Rotem, said. “Social networks allow us to reach this audience — our neighbors — and present the true face of Israel, in a way that was not possible before.”

The Foreign Ministry chose to start with a page geared toward Iraqis because of the “glorious history” of Iraqi Jews now living in Israel, and the “great interest that the local population has shown in Israel, especially in recent years,” Rotem said.

The Foreign Ministry’s various Arabic-language channels have received “sympathetic responses” from residents of Baghdad and other places in Iraq, he added. “We believe that the digital embassy will promote fruitful and positive dialogue and lead to a deeper acquaintance between Israelis and Iraqis from all walks of Iraqi society — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other population groups.”

The first posts on the site, called “Israel in the Iraqi dialect,” deal with the stories of Jewish Israelis with Iraqi backgrounds, as well as a video in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday listing the state’s achievements in various fields.

In one post, the administrator pledges to answer users’ questions about Israel, “with credibility and transparency.”

“The opening of the page is the result of a dynamic dialogue we have been conducting for a while now with the Iraqi population on the pages we operate,” said Yonatan Gonen, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language digital diplomacy unit.

Last year alone, the content his team published got 50 million views from Iraq, he added. “Many surfers from Iraq express interest in a dialogue with Israel, write that Israel is a fait accompli and wish to establish relations between the two countries.”

Iraqis feel a “growing sense of nostalgia for the Jewish community,” which contributed to the development of modern Iraq, but was expelled after the establishment of the State of Israel, according to a Foreign Ministry press release.

“The Jewish community that originated in Iraq and now lives in Israel is a human bridge between the two countries,” said Iraqi-born veteran journalist Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin, who has advised the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language digital media for years.

“There is no doubt that we are witnessing an earthquake in Iraqi public opinion compared to the period during which I lived in Iraq during the Baath period, in which the Jews suffered from hostile treatment and harassment,” she said.

The Foreign Ministry’s social media team started targeting Iraqis several months ago.

In January, a post on the Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page empathized with the victims of two major terror attacks in Iraq and called for closer ties between Jerusalem and Baghdad.

“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 read. “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

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, who oversees the ministry’s Arabic social media accounts, told The Times of Israel at the time.

“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.”

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 right is committee chair Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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