'Israel is an inseparable part of the region'

Over 300 prominent Iraqis publicly call for full peace with Israel

Unprecedented event in Erbil features Sunni and Shiite leaders and activists demanding that Baghdad join Abraham Accords; Lapid: Event in Iraq is a ‘source of hope and optimism’

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)

Hundreds of Iraqi leaders and activists gathered in the country’s Kurdistan region on Friday to publicly call for full normalization with Israel.

The group, which includes Sunni and Shiites, youth activists and tribal leaders, said the next step after the dramatic announcement would be to seek “face-to-face talks” with Israelis.

The 312 Iraqi men and women issued their statements from a hotel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. The conference was organized by the New York-based Center for Peace Communications, which works to advance engagement between Arabs and Israelis, and to protect activists supporting normalization.

The Times of Israel is covering developments from the conference as they happen.

One of the speakers explained that the group believes in peace with Israel “so that we might live in a stable region that brings conflicts to an end. We believe in it because we want our region to be a peaceful one, in which Israel is an inseparable part of the panoramic whole, and in which all peoples have the right to live in security.”

“We demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally,” wrote Wisam al-Hardan, leader of the Sons of Iraq Awakening movement, in The Wall Street Journal on Friday. “We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity.”

The Sons of Iraq formed organically in 2005 as tribal leaders in Anbar province and ex-Iraqi Army officers allied with US forces to fight al-Qaeda.

“Some of us have faced down ISIS and al-Qaeda on the battlefield,” wrote Hardan. “Through blood and tears we have long demonstrated that we oppose all extremists, whether Sunni jihadists or Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. We have also demonstrated our patriotism: We sacrificed lives for the sake of a unified Iraq, aspiring to realize a federal system of government as stipulated in our nation’s constitution.”

Every three hours a plane arrived at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951 (photo credit: GPO)
A plane arriving at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951. (GPO)

Calling the expulsion of Iraq’s Jews “the most infamous act” in the country’s decline, Hardan said Iraq “must reconnect with the whole of our diaspora, including these Jews.”

“We reject the hypocrisy in some quarters of Iraq that speaks kindly of Iraqi Jews while denigrating their Israeli citizenship, and the Jewish state, which granted them asylum.”

Hardan also said that Iraq’s laws criminalizing contacts with Israelis are “morally repugnant.”

He wrote that while countries like Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Yemen are mired in war, the Abraham Accords represent a hopeful trend of “peace, economic development, and brotherhood.”

In this September 15, 2020 file photo, from left: former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US president Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, sit during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

“We have a choice: tyranny and chaos, or legality, decency, peace and progress,” he wrote. “The answer is clear.”

Seven working groups will be formed in the wake of the conference to address ties between Iraq and its Jewish diaspora, trade and investment, educational reform, repealing anti-normalization laws, peace communications in Iraqi media, artistic collaborations, and supporting peace activists in other Arab countries that don’t recognize Israel.

The Abraham Accords were signed on the White House lawn in September 2020 between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Morocco and Sudan signed normalization agreements with Israel in the ensuing months.

Asked by Times of Israel for a response to the event in Iraq, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said: “The event in Iraq is a source of hope and optimism. Israel is always searching for ways to widen the circle of peace and we are working with friends across the world to make that happen.”

“Normalization benefits the entire region and helps us move away from the extremism and chaos offered by negative actors towards stability, prosperity, moderation and cooperation. The Jewish people share a deep historical connection to Iraq. So to the Iraqi people we say today — we have far more that unites us than divides us and far more to gain from peace than from unnecessary conflict.”

Iraq is officially at war with Israel and is a firm supporter of the Arab League boycott of Israel. Its passports are not valid for travel to Israel.

In 2019, Iraqi ambassador in Washington Fareed Yasseen said, “There are objective reasons that may call for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel,” speaking in Arabic at an event entitled “How Iraq Is Dealing with the Current Regional and International Developments” at the Al-Hewar Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue in Washington.

He noted that there is an important Iraqi community in Israel and they are still proud of their Iraqi attributes. “At their weddings, there is Iraqi culture of celebration. At their weddings, there are Iraqi songs,” the veteran diplomat, who has served in DC since November 2016, went on. Yasseen also noted “outstanding” Israeli technologies in the fields of water management and agriculture.

“But the objective reasons are not enough,” he added, stressing that there are “emotional and other reasons” that make open communication between Jerusalem and Baghdad impossible.

Though he faced backlash from other Iraqi officials, Yasseen was not recalled.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director Thomas Homan, left, shakes hands with Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen, during a ceremony to return ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, to Iraq, at the Residence of the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, in Washington, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The same year, three delegations of local leaders from Iraq reportedly made trips to Israel and held meetings with Israeli officials.

The delegations, totaling 15 Iraqis, met with Israeli academics, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and most significantly met with Israeli government officials, Hadashot TV news reported.

In 2018, the Foreign Ministry launched a Facebook page uniquely dedicated to fostering ties with Iraq. Diplomats in Jerusalem said the Arabic-language page would serve as “some sort of digital embassy” to the war-torn country.

Israel had in recent months stepped up efforts to reach out to the country, arguing that Iraqis were interested in establishing ties with the Jewish state.

A month later, Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant — whose Instagram photo last year with her Israeli counterpart forced her family to flee the Middle Eastern country — visited Israel and reunited with Miss Israel.

Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman (left) and Miss Iraq Sarah Idan share a moment at the 2017 Miss Universe beauty pageant, in a picture Idan posted to Instagram

In August of this year, a senior Foreign Ministry official said that Israel maintains some form of contact with Iraq.

While Israel maintained close ties with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, Iraq was one of Israel’s leading adversaries until the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

Iraq’s 18,000 troops represented the largest single force fighting the nascent Jewish state in the 1948 War of Independence, even defeating Israeli forces in Jenin. Iraq also sent major expeditionary forces to fight Israel in 1967 and 1973, losing over 800 soldiers to IDF forces on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.

Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear weapons program alarmed Israel, which ultimately destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein targeted the Jewish state with dozens of Scud missiles.

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