Posts Tagged ‘Iranian sympathizers’

Israel Tries Arabic Outreach, Gets Mixed Response

January 27, 2018

Military deploys social media to spread anti-Iran message

IDF’s Maj. Avichay Adraee holds a sign that reads: Hezbollah: Iran’s hand in Lebanon. The photo was a part of a social media exchange, with a fighter from Hezbollah. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

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As Saudi Arabia and Iran spar for influence across the Middle East, Israel is using the Arabic language to seek common ground with Tehran’s enemies and sway its sympathizers.

The efforts have been met at times with hostility and ridicule—in part because Maj. Avichay Adraee, the Israeli army spokesman leading the outreach, doesn’t shy away from provocation.

Maj. Adraee’s recent output includes a Facebook post of image of Iran’s flag superimposed over the Gaza Strip and a Twitter video simulating an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, home of the Iran-backed group Hezbollah.

Text messaging

A tweet from the Israeli military’s Arabic-language spokesman Maj. Avichay Adraee accuses Iran for dragging down Gaza, including the message that Iran “will not care about the peoples it attempts to exert its influence over.”

With 1.2 million followers on his Arabic Facebook page and more than 181,000 on Twitter, Maj. Adraee is the face of the Israeli messaging campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued videos with Arabic subtitles denouncing Iran, and the foreign ministry routinely posts rosy images of Israeli-Arab coexistence for its own million-plus Arabic-language Facebook followers.

For Israel, which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors, social media has become a way to engage with Arabs and reinforce a growing alignment with Sunni Muslim Arab states.

The most influential of those states is Saudi Arabia. In a sign of that emphasis, the Israeli military chose a newspaper owned by a Saudi publisher when it offered the first Arab-media interview with its chief of staff in more than 10 years.

Iran is the “biggest threat to the region,” chief-of-staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot told the publication, Elaph, which is based in London, in November. “In this matter, there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

An official at Iran’s United Nations mission didn’t respond to a request for comment on Israel’s media outreach.

In recent years, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up intelligence cooperation to counter Iran, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials—though these Arab states have said they still aren’t willing to engage publicly because of their opposition to Israeli rule over Palestinians.

“In the Arab world, there’s a common threat when it comes to Iran,” said Maj. Adraee. Arabs are “interested in what we have to say,” he said.

Elaph’s publication of editorials by Maj. Adraee condemning Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas have prompted speculation in Lebanese media that Saudi Arabia is deepening ties further with Israel.

Pitching Harmony

An Arabic Facebook post by the foreign ministry promotes a peaceful Israel.

Elaph’s publisher, Othman al Omeir, said his publication is independent and blocked in Saudi Arabia because of its liberal-leaning tone. However, Mr. Omeir said, there is now “a different position toward Israel” in the Arab world.

Maj. Adraee, who is 35 years old and Jewish, said he learned Arabic from his mother, who immigrated from Iraq. He joined the army more than 12 years ago and helped set up the Arabic-language communications team in 2005.

It was after the end of the second Palestinian uprising in Israel, a bloody conflict, and the military had decided it needed to better communicate its position to Arabs and particularly to Arabic-speaking news correspondents based in Israel, Maj. Adraee said.

He points out that as recently as 2006, during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israeli army communicated with Arabs in Beirut by dropping leaflets from planes that warned of bombing attacks.

With social media, Maj. Adraee occasionally engages directly with followers, alongside tweets and posts promoting the strength of the Israeli military and seeking to undermine its foes.

The response is often negative. Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera published a video that framed Maj. Adraee’s attempts to engage with Arab youth as a targeted Israeli intelligence campaign to brainwash them.

Egyptian comic Tamer Gamal has dressed up as the spokesman in videos—donning reading glasses and a gray uniform with a beret under the shoulder strap—and set up a Facebook page parodying Maj. Adraee’s profile.

The new Saudi Arabian leadership’s aggressive approach to Iran is shifting the balance of power across the Middle East and is having huge repercussions for the region. Iran, in response, has warned Saudi Arabia against its hawkishness. WSJ’s Niki Blasina explains the four main proxy conflicts between the two nations.

“I did it because I saw that the Israelis were trying to present themselves as something they are not—a peaceful and democratic country,” Mr. Gamal said in an interview.

Israeli officials, while aiming to project strength, seek to counter that image, arguing for example that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

Websites affiliated with the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have warned Arabs against following Israeli social-media channels.

The Lebanese political faction Amal Movement, which is close to Hezbollah and Iran, has also mocked Maj. Adraee. “One of the most important things we can do is not communicate with these suspicious pages as their aim is to provoke a reaction,” said a spokesman for the group.

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That appears easier said than done. In one of Maj. Adraee’s most intense social-media exchanges, a fighter from Hezbollah last year tweeted a picture of himself in uniform with a message that his group was going to conquer northern Israel.

Maj. Adraee responded: “If you dare, we will surprise you.”

After a number of further exchanges that included a threat to his life, Maj. Adraee published intelligence photos on Facebook of dozens of people whom the army claimed were Hezbollah spies patrolling the Israeli border—a rare step even in traditional media.

Maj. Adraee said he was pleased that he had started a discussion. A spokesman for Hezbollah declined to comment.

Yonatan Gonen, head of Arabic digital diplomacy at Israel’s foreign ministry, said the impact of the media efforts is often limited. He said social-media users might now refer to his country as Israel instead of “the Zionist entity,” calling it a small improvement but progress nonetheless.

For Maj. Adraee, the latest media efforts are a small step toward better relations.

“I see a change,” he said. “But it’s a slow change.”

Write to Rory Jones at rory.jones@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/israel-tries-arabic-outreach-gets-mixed-response-1517054401

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