Israel in contact with most Arab countries, including Iraq — senior diplomat

Outgoing Middle East Division head Haim Regev says official ‘enemy states’ among many countries Jerusalem is in touch with, though list does not include Lebanon, Syria and Yemen

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative: Iraqi men stand on an Israeli flag and hold a banner depicting Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they take part in a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, July 1, 2016. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)
Illustrative: Iraqi men stand on an Israeli flag and hold a banner depicting Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they take part in a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, July 1, 2016. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

The Foreign Ministry maintains some form of contact with almost all Arab countries, including ones officially designated as “enemy states” like Iraq, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

“Over the last twenty years, the Foreign Ministry was always in touch with almost all the players in the Arab World,” said the outgoing director of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Division, Haim Regev, during a briefing in Jerusalem.

While he clarified that this list of covert contacts does not include Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, it does extend to Baghdad.

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.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Thomas Homan (L) shakes hands with Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen after signing an agreement returning ancient artifacts to Iraq that were seized from Hobby Lobby May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

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

Iraq sent significant forces to fight Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

Israel supported Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, and is reported to occasionally strike Iranian proxies inside of Iraq.

The Foreign Ministry honors Israeli diplomats who secretly served in Arab Gulf states, December 2020 (courtesy MFA)

‘They didn’t hide me’

Regev is being dispatched to Brussels to head Israel’s mission to the European Union after five years leading the Middle East Division.

Along with Israel’s roving diplomat in the Arab World Bruce Kashdan, Regev was one of the key diplomats who laid the groundwork for the Abraham Accords normalizations agreements that Israel signed with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in 2020.

Regev reflected on the changes he witnessed in the way Arab countries relate to visiting Israeli officials. When he flew to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s Abu Dhabi headquarters in 2014, he had to wait in a side room at the airport for forty minutes, was taken to a specific hotel, was instructed to not use his own credit card and to keep a low profile.

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al Spokesperson’s Office)

“When I came two years later,” he said, “it took ten minutes. I paid by myself for the hotel. They didn’t hide me, and there was no special bubble around me.”

The preparations and years of quiet work paid off, Regev said. “When the Abraham Accords breakthrough happened, we were already there.”

Now that four new normalization agreements have been signed — in addition to the preexisting peace deals with Egypt and Jordan — almost half the population of the Arab world lives in a country that has open diplomatic ties with Israel.

Regev believes that the main draw for Arab states to recognize Israel is the fact that it is the only Middle Eastern country openly fighting against Iran and its proxies, and Jerusalem’s close ties with the US.

“We are the bridge to the Americans,” he argued.

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the Oval Office June 28, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills/New York Times/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

He also underscored Israel’s technological prowess and its success in combating the COVID-19 pandemic as reasons Arab states are interested in overt relations with Israel.

At the same time, Regev acknowledged that significant obstacles remain.

He pointed to Jerusalem — specifically the Temple Mount — as a source of tension, even for countries with which Israel already has relations. “It’s a very sensitive issue. We dealt with it all the time.”

The unrest in Jerusalem in May, and the subsequent 11-day conflict with Hamas, undoubtedly made waves in Israel’s efforts to put meat on the bones of the Abraham Accords, he said, but the process is back on track. Ministers are making official visits, diplomatic offices are being opened and agreements are being signed.

Regev said the Foreign Ministry has a four-pronged approach to expanding the Abraham Accords to new countries while deepening existing ties.

Yigal Unna, the director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, right to left, Morocco’s defense minister Abdellatif Loudiyi and Unna’s Moroccan counterpart General El Mostafa Rabii, sign a cybersecurity cooperation accord in Rabat, Morocco; July 2021 (Courtesy)

Developing diplomatic or government-to-government ties; furthering private sector trade with countries; working to enlist the support of international organizations and the US in reaching new partners; and public diplomacy directed at the Arab public.

These initiatives come from the lessons the Foreign Ministry has learned from its decades of cold peace with Egypt and Jordan — ties conducted almost exclusively at the governmental level.

In expanding its diplomatic outreach, Israel is seeking to avoid the “gaps” that emerged in its relations with Jordan and Egypt, Regev said.

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