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Some Israelis reach out to Iran amid fears of war

Ruthie Pliskin didn't want Israel's threats of a possible military strike to be the only message her country had for Iran. So the doctoral student from Tel Aviv posted a photo of herself and her cat on Facebook, with a sign in Farsi reading: "We love you, people of Iran."

She says she received enthusiastic responses from Iranians when she posted on an "Israel-Loves-Iran" Facebook page who corrected the sign's spelling and returned warm wishes.

Pliskin is among a small but growing number of Israelis trying to reach out to Iranians, even as Israeli politicians warn with growing frequency and intensity that Israel might strike to halt Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

Israelis mounted an art exhibit in Tel Aviv centered on Iran, built a website in Farsi with news of Israeli daily life, and protested Saturday against a potential strike on Iranian nuclear installations.

They have also posted images endlessly shared on Facebook against a war with Iran.

Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran, said that this marks the first time Israelis have reached out in such a way to another nation in the Middle East. Has it had impact in Iran so far? That's not clear yet, though Israelis say Iranians are responding positively to the Internet outreach. But it appears unlikely that any good will being generated by civilians will sway governments.

Israel's leaders say a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. Iranian leaders often demonize Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said he's willing to give sanctions and negotiations a few more months to deter Iran from trying to obtain nuclear weapons, but suggests that, if efforts fail, Israel could strike this year. Iran insists it is pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but warns it will strike back if attacked.

In Israel, surveys show that a majority oppose a solo Israeli attack on Iran without American military cooperation.

Retired Israeli military and intelligence leaders have advised against striking Iran, arguing that Israel doesn't have enough bomb shelters or gas masks to absorb a possible Iranian counterattack.

"Despite all this, our prime minister wants to take us to war," said Tzvika Besor, a Tel Aviv marketing agent who organized Saturday's protest. "And we say no."

A few hundred Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday night, holding signs reading "No to war," and, addressing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "Bibi, don't bomb Iran,"

And another prominent Israeli added his voice in opposition on Saturday. Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel shouldn't be the one taking on the entire Arab and Muslim world when it was clear Israel would be blamed the day after.

Other protests have taken a more artistic approach. In early March, three Tel Aviv artists mounted an exhibition called "Iran," featuring a fake missile pointed at the nearby U.S. Embassy, a statue of Barak titled "the most dangerous man in the world 2012" and short films. Hundreds attended its opening night.

At Haifa University, the head of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies started a Persian-language news portal from Israel, called TeHTel, to show a Tehran-Tel Aviv bond.

Launched March 4, the site drew 22,000 visitors in its first two weeks, including several thousand directly from Iran. TeHTel offers personal essays from Israelis, musings on hamburgers and holidays, and translated news from Hebrew news sites and blogs on the country's social and economic reality. An anonymous donor underwrote the project, and paid staff to maintain it, including Iranian-Israeli translators.

"There's interest, people are reading it, there are talkbacks, people write and reply to each other," said Soli Shahvar, the site's creator. "We want to come and stop this twisting of reality that (the Iranian) government does to Israel as a people that wants to rule the world, as Zionists who are killing Palestinians."

The hunger to connect has reached the government as well. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that the office staff will learn about Iran next week, with a slide show, tastes of Persian food and lectures on Iranian religion and culture.

Palmor said it will be a day off from politics, and more like other enrichment lectures on American literature and French wine.

Despite the current animosity, Iran is "still an important country in the region with which we have had good relations in the past and with which we aspire to have good relations in the future," Palmor said.

Prior to its 1979 Islamic revolution -- when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel and began referring to its government as the "Zionist regime" -- Iran was an ally of Israel with the Shah maintaining warm relations with Israeli leaders.

This is not the first time the Internet has bridged a gap between hostile countries in the region.

Israelis and Lebanese commented on each other's blogs throughout the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006. A Gazan from a refugee camp and an Israeli from a border town co-hosted a blog during Israel's military offensive in Gaza in 2008.

But Iran is different.

Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli, said this movement may be fueled in part by a large successful community of Israelis with Iranian roots that is "out and proud with its Persian identity."

Some 250,000 Israelis, out of a population of 7.8 million, are of Iranian descent. They include former army chief Shaul Mofaz and singer Rita, who has put out a Farsi album.

The success of the Oscar-winning film "A Separation" has helped humanize Iranians, in contrast to "the petrifying picture of Iran which Iranian politicians have managed to produce," Javedanfar said.

Pliskin, 29, is among the Israelis who wanted to reach out with anti-war posters for Iran. The Israel-Loves-Iran page garnered 34,000 "likes" within a week.

One shows a couple kissing. The young man holds up his Israeli passport, right beside his purported girlfriend's Iranian passport. "I love my Persian girlfriend," the caption reads.

"Persian cats, we will never bomb your country!" reads one Israeli poster showing a cute cat.

Other posters claimed to show Iranian affection for Israel, but their origins could not be pinned down. One said, "Israelian friends, I wish we both get rid of our idiot politicians anyway, nice to see you!"

Pliskin called the connection with the targeted country "exciting."

"I was moved by everything that's going on," she said, "and that I was able to be a part of it so easily."