Three Iraqi delegations said to make unprecedented Israel visits, meet officials

TV report says secret taboo-busting trips arranged with goal of building basis for future ties; delegates tour Yad Vashem, meet academics, discuss Iraqi Jewish heritage

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)

In an unprecedented series of visits, three delegations of local leaders from Iraq have reportedly made trips to Israel in recent months, and held meetings with Israeli officials.

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

Iraq is 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.

The groups made the trips, which were firmly designated as unofficial visits, under conditions of great secrecy, the TV report noted, in part in order to avoid antagonizing Iraq’s Iranian neighbors.

A residential area lies in ruins, after an Iraqi Scud missile attack in Tel Aviv, Israel on Januar 18, 1991. The Iraqi missile attack came one day after US forces launched Operation Desert Storm – the Gulf War – against Iraq. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver)

The local Iraqi leaders were not from Iraqi Kurdistan, the TV report stressed, but rather from “Iraq proper — that is, Baghdad.” The three delegations comprised both Sunni and Shi’ite members — “influential figures in Iraq.”

The trips were mainly of a “social-cultural nature,” the TV report said, and also featured meetings with organizations that deal with the Iraqi Jewish heritage. The goal, the report added, was “to build the infrastructure for future ties” between Iraq and Israel, with these delegates going back to Iraq as “kinds of future ambassadors” for Israel there.

The report did not identify any members of the Iraqi delegations, nor did it specify with which Israeli officials they had held talks. It said the most recent of the visits was last month.

Iraq has been in a formal state of war with Israel throughout the modern history of the state, and its forces participated in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. In 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the nuclear reactor Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein had been building at Osirak. A decade later, in the first Gulf War, Saddam fired over 40 Scud missiles into Israel.

Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, Sarah Idan, left, with Israelis at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, June 2018. (Screen capture: Hadashot)

Nonetheless, the TV report asserted, amid overall regional hostility to the Jewish state, the Iraqi populace is “relatively supportive” of Israel, and this was a factor that helped enable the recent visits.

Last May, Israel’s 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.

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.

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.

Iraqi-born Sarah Idan lives in the United States, but her family was forced to relocate from the Arab country after the photo of her with Israel’s Adar Gandelsman went viral last year.

Iraq’s Jewish community is the oldest outside Israel, dating back to the prophet Abraham, who lived in Ur in southern Iraq. In 1950-52, some 120-130,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel, leaving a community of some 10,000. Today, it is believed that number has dwindled to no more than a handful.

A plane filled with Iraqi Jews, photographed on arrival at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv in early 1951 (Teddy Brauner, GPO)

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