Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Saturday night that “Israel extends its hand back in peace” in response to a Friday meeting of over 300 prominent Iraqis calling for their country to normalize ties with the Jewish state.
“Hundreds of Iraqi public figures, Sunnis and Shiites, gathered yesterday to call for peace with Israel,” Bennett said in a tweet.
“This is a call that comes from below and not from above, from the people and not from the government, and the recognition of the historical injustice done to the Jews of Iraq is especially important.”
“The State of Israel extends its hand back in peace,” the prime minister added.
Iraqi leaders on Saturday strongly rejected the call for normalization by the prominent figures, calling the gathering an “illegal meeting.”
Iraq has officially been at war with Israel since the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Iraqi soldiers have fought in three successive Arab wars against Israel. Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear weapons program alarmed Israel, which ultimately destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, and in 1991, the Iraqi dictator fired dozens of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa in an attempt to draw Israel into the Gulf War.
At Friday’s conference in the Kurdistan region, Iraqi participants called on their country’s leaders to end the state of war and join the so-called Abraham Accords.
The agreements, formulated by the administration of former United States president Donald Trump, 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.
“We demand full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel… and a new policy of normalization based on people-to-people relations with the citizens of that country,” said Wisam al-Hardan, who commanded Sunni tribal militias that aligned with the US to fight al-Qaeda in 2005, in response to the power vacuum that followed the 2003 American invasion.
The gathering, which included Sunni and Shiite Muslim tribal leaders, social activists and former military commanders, took place in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil. It was organized by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to advance closer ties between Israelis and the Arab world.
Other attendees from around the region spoke virtually to the participants, including former UAE official Ali al-Na’imi and Chemi Peres, the son of former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Calling the expulsion of Iraq’s Jews “the most infamous act” in the country’s decline, al-Hardan said that Iraq “must reconnect with the whole of our diaspora, including these Jews.”
Other Iraqis who participated in the conference urged their country to rebuild ties with those who arrived in Israel fleeing persecution, as well as their descendants.
A flourishing Iraqi Jewish community lived in the country for centuries, mostly in the central city of Baghdad. But as British colonial rule ended in Iraq and the State of Israel was born in Mandatory Palestine, everything began to change.
A vicious 1941 pogrom, known in Arabic as the Farhud, saw the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi Jews at the hands of their compatriots in Baghdad. The attacks were sparked by rumors that Jews had helped the British retake power in Iraq following a coup by pro-Nazi Iraqi generals.
After Israel was founded in 1948, Iraq began persecuting those Jews who remained. The government made Zionism a criminal offense and began firing Iraqi Jews from the civil service en masse. Other Jewish Iraqis were arrested and executed as suspected spies.
Between 1950 and 1952, over 100,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel as part of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. With others driven to emigrate by further decades of repression and war, only a handful of Jews remain.
Iraqi officials have said that their country will not normalize ties with Israel without a just resolution of the Palestinian issue. But in 2019, Iraqi ambassador to the United States Farid Yassin noted that there were “objective reasons” to establish ties between the two countries.
Many Palestinians strongly oppose normalization between Israel and the broader Arab world. Both Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas terror group described last year’s normalization accords as a “betrayal.”
Aaron Boxerman and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.