“The word ‘animal’ is wasted when it comes out of the dirty mouth of someone like you,” the tweet read. “An animal is nobler than you.”
“You miserable soul, you will never live to see your only wish come true,” said another.
We all might cross the line when caught in the midst of an online fight. But which Twitter account was posting this avalanche of insult-ridden tweets at online trolls? None other than the official Persian-language Twitter account of Israel’s foreign ministry.
It all started when the Israeli Twitter account celebrated two Iranian footballers’ decision to play for a Greek club, thereby breaking a ban on Iranian athletes competing against Israelis. On August 4, Iranian footballers Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi honored their contracts with Greek team Panionios and played against the Israeli team Maccabi in a third qualifying round match for the Europa League, defying the taboo that had overshadowed the careers of many Iranian athletes over the years.
The original Israeli tweet read: "Kudos to Masoud Shojayi and Ehsan Hajsafi who broke the taboo of not competing with Israeli athletes." It got a lot of attention, with more than 1,000 likes,163 retweets and almost 600 replies (at the time of writing), with a mix of positive and negative remarks. But some Iran-based Twitter users were angered by the tweet, and verbally attacked the Israeli account — which had initially been launched as an act of public diplomacy to curry favor with Iranians.
The angry tweets have now been deleted and replaced with a more calm rebuttal to anti-Israeli comments. IranWire understands that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has admitted the mistake but the ministry is yet to respond to IranWire’s request for comment.
“I was pretty shocked to see these tweets,” Meir Litvak, an Iran scholar and director of Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, told IranWire. “Their admission [to tweets having been a mistake] is no excuse of course.”
The Twitter users that got replies from Israel’s official account appear to be active supporters of Iran’s conservative and hardliner factions. Twitter user Fateme Ghorbbannia, for example, is a supporter of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is well known for his anti-Israeli tirades. Mohamad Emadi from Shiraz has a photograph of Ebrahim Raeesi, the defeated conservative candidate in Iran’s recent presidential election, embracing Ghasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s militia Quds Force known for its massive operations in Iraq and Syria, as his bio picture. “The Hezbollahi Kid” also got a reply from the Israelis.
Emadi, the Hezbollah Kid, Ghorbbannia and others all echoed the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Two years ago, the leader boasted that Israel won’t “see the next 25 years,” a claim that was posted on Khamenei’s English Twitter account at the time. Khamenei was responding to Israel’s reaction to the Iranian nuclear deal; the Jewish state had said that Israel was safe from an attack by Iran for the next 25 years.
But it wasn’t just conservative Iranians who took issue with the Israeli Twitter account. Many Iranian Twitter users abroad who don’t share the conservatives’ anti-Israeli politics also expressed distaste.
The very fact that Israel tweeted about the footballers’ decision in an official capacity “added unnecessary fuel to the fire,” Mahsa Alimardani, a London-based researcher and Iran editor of Global Voices, told IranWire. “Continuing to attack and disrespect Iranian users like this gives the impression that the Israeli government has an excess of resources.”
According to Litvak, “this episode reflects the sorry state of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the outcome of an intentional policy of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
The right-wing prime minister of Israel controversially appointed himself as foreign minister, leaving one of the most important Israeli institutions without a full-time hand at the helm. The ministry’s public affairs are mostly run by Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely. The 38-year old member of the ruling party Likud is a proud “religious right-winger” with one of the country’s most extreme positions on Israeli foreign affairs. Not only is she opposed to any Palestinian statehood (unlike Netanyahu, who remains verbally committed to a two-state solution since his famed Bar Ilan speech in 2009), Hotovely, who hails from an orthodox Georgian Jewish community, is on the record for making incendiary remarks like: “This land is ours. All of it is ours.” While the Jewish settlements in the West Bank clearly violate international law, Hotovely is one of their strongest supporters and seeks their foreign acknowledgment.
“My guess is that such tweets reflect the mood and atmosphere created by Hovotely — i.e. the blunt, crude posture designed to project toughness and defiance vis-a-vis critics of Israel,” says Litvak. “To put it differently, [this is an] emulation of Donald Trump, Israeli style.”
Calling the tweets “crude and foolish,” Litvak lamented “the great distance we are from the days when Abba Eban was our foreign minister 40 years ago,” referring to the Labour Party’s foreign minister from 1966 to 1974. Eban was known as a cerebral diplomatic mind and a scholar of Arabic who had studied the language at Cambridge.
A Move Toward Engagement
But in a not too distant past, it was another Tzipi that launched the ministry’s online outreach efforts toward Iranians and Persian speakers. In 2007, when Tzipi Livni was foreign minister, Israel launched a dedicated website in Persian. This was a significant move, as until then only one other country’s foreign ministry had a Persian outreach page, and that was the United States. To this day, other than the obligatory English and the official Hebrew and Arabic, the Israeli foreign ministry has websites in only two other languages: Persian and Russian. Livni, who had a past in Likud but split from the party in 2005, is known for her strong endorsement of the two-state solution. Far from the likes of Hotovely, Livni is strongly pro-diplomacy, so much so that the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered her an Under Secretary-General post shortly after he took the helm in January 2017. No Israeli has ever served in such a post, as the country has traditionally been at odds with the UN apparatus.
Israel’s official Twitter account in Persian is clearly run by native or near-native speakers, which isn’t surprising given the tens of thousands of native Persian-speakers who are citizens of Israel. Israeli academic institutions host many Iran scholars, and the country had run a Persian radio broadcast since 1958, which only ended its operations in May 2017.
The official Israeli Persian account has more than 42,000 followers and is regularly monitored by Iranian media, including the hardline outlets. Naturally, it also attracts many trolls, occasionally of the ugly variety. A tweet about Anne Frank recently led to many positive replies. One user said: “My heart was pained by reading the honest feelings of a 14-year old girl.” But there were also many Holocaust denial tweets, including: “Who believes such a lie?” “Who can prove this was her own handwriting? You, Israel, dirtier than dogs, the true Holocaust is in Gaza.” “Why are you threatening researchers of the Holocaust if it’s actually true?” “Why do Nazis not have the right to express their views?!? Why should the story be told one-sidedly by the Jews?!?”
The Israeli gaffe reveals the troubles of Twitter diplomacy. A relatively new phenomenon, its use has grown significantly in recent years. There is even a dedicated organization that tracks diplomats on Twitter, appropriately named “Twitterdiplomacy.”
Gaffes occur from time to time, of course. For example, once the official account of Indian Vice-President Venkaiah Nadu retweeted tweets from a parody account that online pranksters had made in his name (he was then a cabinet minister.) And engagement with users can be considered risky, as it can lead to gaffes like the Israeli episode — or to “feeding the trolls,” as the expression goes.
The crowded, confusing world of social media can land anyone in hot water — and Israeli diplomats are obviously no exception.