JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis reacted with a mixture of pleasant surprise and wary skepticism on Friday to reports that the new Iranian president and his foreign minister had both issued greetings to mark the Jewish New Year.
Relations between the two countries have been dire for years, with Israel threatening to attack the Islamic Republic over fears it is planning to build nuclear weapons that could one day jeopardize the survival of the Jewish state.
Iran denies it wants an atomic bomb, but former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who left office last month, regularly riled Israel by calling for the destruction of the “Zionist entity”.
In a change of tone, his successor Hassan Rouhani and the new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, appeared to issue tweets in English wishing Jews a good Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish new year that is being celebrated this week. Iran has long declared an official respect for the Jewish faith while condemning Israel.
“Happy Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Zarif on a profile that notes his career as a diplomat, academic and “Uni of Denver alum”.
The reported greetings came just as Israel was settling into a long holiday weekend and there was no official reaction.
Ordinary Israelis were torn about their meaning.
“Gosh I hadn’t heard about that, but I think it’s very nice of him,” said Julia Blus, 25, who works at an amusement park at Manara Cliffs. Next to the Lebanese border, it overlooks hostile territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia.
By contrast, Roni Benjamin, 66, a bank executive from Kfar Saba in central Israel, said: “It doesn’t mean anything; I don’t see any real change there ... What (Rouhani) really needs to do is to understand that we are not his enemies.”
Rouhani’s election in June has encouraged speculation of a more conciliatory approach to foreign affairs from Tehran, though the president’s power is heavily circumscribed by the clerical hierarchy and Israel’s government remains very wary.
Confusing matters, Israeli news websites quoted an official in the Iranian president’s office denying any New Year greetings had been sent and saying Rouhani’s English-language Twitter account, used during his election campaign, was not active.
There was no denial from Zarif and the minister went further to push back on a comment that Iran denies the Nazi Holocaust: “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone,” he tweeted, apparently meaning Ahmadinejad.
On Facebook, he wrote: “We condemn the massacre of Jews by the Nazis and we condemn the massacre of Palestinians by the Zionists.”
Iran is home to the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East - albeit only a few thousand people following mass emigration last century. It denies Israel’s right to exist but even Ahmadinejad embraced some Jews - as long as they rejected the Zionist movement that established the Israeli state.
Neither Rouhani or Zarif mentioned the word “Israel”.
“It’s hard to feel flattered about this form of anti-Semitism that says Jews are OK as long as they don’t dare have their own sovereign state,” said Michal Bachar, a 36-year-old from Jerusalem.
Arieh Rosen, 33, a cultural representative at the Polish Institute, said the New Year greetings were “cute” but did not generate much talk among his family and friends at holiday gatherings. “I suppose it is a calculated PR stunt,” he said.
Naama Shilony, 33, a mother of two from Jerusalem, said her family did discuss the tweets. And while her relatives thought it was “bullshit”, she said it had made her happy.
“It was a positive encouraging sign,” she said. “I just regret it was made on Twitter, which is an informal platform.”
Iran has been at the forefront of Israeli policy-making for years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged his Western allies not to be lulled by conciliatory words from Rouhani.
In his own New Year address, Netanyahu again stressed that tackling Iran’s nuclear program was “of paramount importance”.
He said: “We simply cannot allow the world’s most dangerous regime to obtain the world’s most dangerous weapon.”
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch, Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Alastair Macdonald