Analysis'We don't need to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians'

Move over, Bahrain? Iraq signals interest in better ties with Israel

In remarkable recent comments, Baghdad’s US envoy listed good reasons for a detente with Jerusalem; though he wasn’t punished for his remarks, normalization still seems far off

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Shiite fighters of paramilitary units burn an Israeli flag drawing during a rally to mark  al-Quds Day em), a commemoration first initiated by Iran in 1979 to fall on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, in the capital Baghdad on June 8, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Shiite fighters of paramilitary units burn an Israeli flag drawing during a rally to mark al-Quds Day em), a commemoration first initiated by Iran in 1979 to fall on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, in the capital Baghdad on June 8, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

That Israel and the Sunni-Arab Gulf states cooperate closely is the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. Despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, everybody knows Jerusalem has clandestine yet robust ties with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and other capitals in the region, due to shared concerns about an increasingly belligerent Iran.

The most striking indication of this Arab-Israel detente was the US-led economic workshop last month in Bahrain, during which the kingdom’s foreign minister declared that his government views Israel as an integral part of the Middle East and desires closer ties with it.

Less known is the Jewish state’s effort to improve relations with Iraq. A few days ago, Baghdad’s US envoy appeared to reciprocate Israel’s continual overtures, speaking openly about the potential benefits of establishing ties with the Jewish state, though the country’s Foreign Ministry quickly disavowed his comments.

There are several reasons Jerusalem has determined that Iraq is ripe for rapprochement: its historically good relations with the Kurds; the fact that Iraqis, preoccupied with their own challenges, are not deeply invested in the Palestinian cause; and of course the affinity to Iraq that many Israelis with roots there still have.

As with the Gulf states, full normalization with Iraq look to be elusive as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unsolved.

Still, the words of the Iraqi ambassador in Washington, Fareed Yasseen, cannot be seen as anything but astonishing. “There are objective reasons that may call for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel,” he said on June 27, 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.

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)

There is an important Iraqi community in Israel and they are still proud of their Iraqi attributes, he said. “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 noted, stressing that there are “emotional and other reasons” that make open communication between Jerusalem and Baghdad impossible.

As soon as his comments made the rounds on social media, Iraqi activists and politicians, including senior lawmakers, starting demanding he be recalled.

The Foreign Ministry in Baghdad issued a statement saying the ambassador’s statements were misreported, reiterating the country’s unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause.

“We do not establish any relations with the occupying state and abide by the principle of boycott,” ministry spokesperson Ahmed Al-Sahaf said.

“Iraq has always been in all regional and international forums… supporting the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people in its struggle and defending its rights, and did not give up [for even] one day its position, which rejects all forms of normalization with this entity, the usurper of the land [that] kills, displaces and destructs life aggressively.”

Hassan al-Kaabi, the first deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, also declared that the US envoy’s statements “do not represent Iraq’s official and popular position that rejects any relationship whatsoever with the the entity that usurps our occupied land in Palestine.”

He called on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to “question and recall the minister and to take measures to ensure these statements are not repeated.”

But as unequivocal as they may seem, these angry statements do not represent the government’s true position, an unnamed Iraqi official told Israel’s Army Radio this week. Rather, it was intended to “calm down the Iranians,” he explained.

“We desire the well-being of the Palestinians and peace in the region, but as Iraqis we don’t need to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians,” Entifadh Qanbar, a Washington-based Iraqi-American politician and activist, told the station, referring to the fact that the Palestinian Authority itself recognizes Israel and cooperates with it.

“The Iraqi citizen is concerned about the lack of electricity and potable water. Fifty or 60 percent of young Iraqis are unemployed — that is more important than the liberation of Jerusalem or other empty slogans like this,” Qanbar added.

Speaking to Israel’s Kan state broadcaster, an anonymous Iraqi citizen said he and his compatriots “support the ambassador and admire his courage to express a position that is beneficial to both sides.”

It is also noteworthy that while the foreign minister disowned the envoy’s controversial statement, the latter was not recalled or otherwise punished for it.

Indeed, a US-Iraqi source with close ties to Baghdad’s Washington mission told The Times of Israel that he believes Ambassador Yasseen “said what he said after clearing his remarks with his prime minister.”

And yet, the source said Jerusalem and Baghdad are unlikely to establish diplomatic relations in the near future, citing Iran’s influence over Iraq. “This won’t change, due to the Arab Shiite majority. Recently, even the Kurds are becoming a little closer to Iran following the US reaction to their referendum a couple of years ago.”

The source, who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned he could lose access to Iraqi officialdom if he discusses the matter with an Israeli news outlet, noted that Iraq did not participate in the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Manama.

Baghdad has long been consistent in its pro-Palestinian position. In March, Iraqi President Barham Salih — a Kurd — hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and stressed the need to “exert efforts to achieve the hopes of the brotherly Palestinian people for peace and stability as well as to realize their full legitimate rights.”

The Iraqis have a very deep relationship with Iran, which would look very poorly on expanding Israeli-Iraqi ties and would discourage such ties

Iraq, he said, “was and still is a pioneer in the defense of Palestine and considers it the cause number one in international forums.”

Between Washington and Tehran

“Iraq is trying to rebuild itself as a functioning and sovereign state. It is tired of wars and is focusing on building physical and social infrastructures and institutions of a functioning state,” said Roee Kibrik, the director of research at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “And it continues to walk between the raindrops — between Iranian involvement and America.”

As Baghdad seeks to curry favor with the US administration, it is unsurprising that it was the country’s ambassador in Washington who made the pro-Israel comment, Kibrik said.

Ilan Goldenberg, who heads the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said there are several reasons in favor of an Iraqi-Israeli rapprochement.

Most important is Israel’s traditional friendship with the Kurds, who make up 15%-20% of the country’s population: Senior officials in Jerusalem have voiced support for Kurdish independence, something deeply appreciated by a people that has few allies and feels abandoned by the international community.

Second, “Iraqis have been so absorbed in their own problems over the last 15 years — multiple civil wars, ISIS and other things — that the Palestinians issue really is not a big deal for the Iraqi public,” Goldenberg said.

“On the other hand, they have a very deep relationship with Iran, which would look very poorly on expanding Israeli-Iraqi ties and would discourage such ties. That then becomes a limitation on any future arrangement.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Iraqi President Barham Salih prepare to address the media in Baghdad, March 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

There are other reasons, such as cultural affinities and nostalgia, Goldenberg said. Still, in the absence of tangible progress on the Palestinian issue, a major rapprochement seems unlikely, he surmised.

Israelis with Iraqi roots can play an important role as a human bridge between the countries, many analysts agreed.

“Having a large Jewish Iraqi community in Israel can be leveraged to establish future contacts between citizens of both countries. Many Iraqis come to deal with Israel mainly through the somewhat nostalgic context of the Jewish community in Iraq and its bitter end,” Ronen Zeidel, a senior researcher of Iraq at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University and a research fellow at the Mitvim Institute, wrote in a paper last year.

“Sometimes, the Jewish context also serves to justify prohibited contacts with Israeli Jews of Iraqi origin. The second and third generations of the Iraqi community in Israel have also recently shown interest in Iraq and in meetings with Iraqis.”

Some Iraqis preserve Jewish heritage sites and show “great interest in the Jewish past of their country, while sharing information with Israeli friends,” Zeidel found.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the residence of the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv on July 7, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for years spoken about Israel’s warming ties with the Arab world, though he has never mentioned Iraq in that context. (The first thing that comes up when you Google “Netanyahu” and “Iraq” is his 2002 testimony to Congress, during which he urged the US to invade the country.)

“There is a broader peace developing,” he said Wednesday at the Egyptian embassy’s National Day celebration in Herzliya, “because the example of Egypt and Israel is being replicated not only in the peace treaty we have with Jordan, but in the normalization that we’re having with many other important Arab countries.”

Our cousins in Baghdad

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem this week declined to comment on the Iraqi ambassador’s surprising statement, but it has long identified Iraqis as a people conducive to normalization.

“I am happy to see that the link between the Iraqi people and the Israeli people continues to become stronger, because, after all, we’re all cousins,” the ministry’s director-general, Yuval Rotem, said two months ago in a filmed Ramadan greeting specifically addressed to Iraqi Muslims.

“We wish for stronger relations and for the day on which we can visit each other, inshallah,” he added.

كلمة مدير عام وزارة الخارجية الإسرائيلية لأبناء الشعب العراقي

بمناسبة حلول شهر رمضان المبارك تقبلوا منا احلى التهاني والتمنيات واليكم كلمة مدير عام وزارة الخارجية لأبناء الشعب العراقي: "العلاقة بين الشعب العراقي وشعب إسرائيل تتنامى ونتوق لليوم الذي يمكننا فيه زيارة بعضنا البعض بكل حرية". ودمتم بخير أيها الإخوة.

Posted by ‎إسرائيل باللهجة العراقية‎ on Monday, May 6, 2019

Formally, the Foreign Ministry still considers Iraq an enemy state and bars Israeli citizens from traveling there, as opposed to the Economy Ministry, which allows Israelis to do business with Iraqis.

In May 2018, the Foreign Ministry opened an Arabic-language Facebook page called “Israel in the Iraqi dialect,” which today has nearly 140,000 likes.

“This will be a digital, virtual Israeli embassy in Baghdad,” Ofir Gendelman, Netanyahu’s spokesperson for Arabic media, said at the launch.

According to Yonatan Gonen, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language digital diplomacy unit, in 2017 alone the page got 50 million views from Iraq.

“The opening of the page is the result of a dynamic dialogue we have been conducting for a while now with the Iraqi population on the pages we operate,” he told The Times of Israel at the time. “Many surfers from Iraq express interest in a dialogue with Israel, write that Israel is a fait accompli and wish to establish relations between the two countries.”

The Foreign Ministry’s new Facebook page, ‘Israel in Iraqi dialect’ (screen shot Facebook)

In January 2018, a post on the ministry’s Arabic Facebook page empathized with the victims of two major terror attacks in Iraq and called for closer ties between Jerusalem and Baghdad.

“Israel extends its hand to its neighbors and waits for the day when the political circumstances will be conducive to the establishment of normal relations and fruitful cooperation for the benefit of all the peoples of the region,” the ministry stated at the time.

The Iraqi US ambassador’s comments last month were the first tangible sign that official Baghdad is responsive to Jerusalem’s overtures, but that the way to full normalization is still long was also made plain by the backlash a former Iraqi beauty received after making pro-Israel comments.

Sarah Idan, who sparked controversy in 2017 when she posted a selfie with Miss Israel, two weeks ago took the floor at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with distinctly pro-Israel messages. As a punishment for her “crime,” her Iraqi citizenship should be revoked, some politicians in her native country demanded.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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