Even with new peace deals, Iraq seems a long way from normalizing ties with Israel

Hussain Abdul-Hussain
Hussain Abdul-Hussain
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Before the biggest Jewish population in the Middle East lived in Israel, it lived in Iraq where its roots go as far back as the Neo-Babylonian dynasty that ended in 539 BCE. If there is any Arab country that a majority of Israelis feels connected to, it would be Iraq. Yet, thanks to the rule of socialist Arab Baathism, followed by the dominance of Iran’s equally authoritarian political Islam, Iraq now seems far away from peace and normalization with Israel.

Compounding the problem is Iraq’s failing state. An Iraqi government that cannot secure the safety of diplomatic missions in Baghdad is not really in charge, and cannot be expected to deliver on any peace treaty that it might sign with Israel, or any other treaty for that matter.

But to give the cabinet of Mustapha al-Kadhimi credit where credit is due, it should be noted that when asked to comment on Emirati-Israeli peace, the Iraqi prime minister said that peace between any Arab country and Israel was a sovereign issue, and that it was up to the Emiratis to decide how to handle its relations with Israel.

Prime Minister Mustapha Al-Kadhimi’s statement reflected growing awareness in Iraq and Lebanon that national interests trump old tired pan-Arabist slogans about Palestine. At the virtual Arab League meeting on Sept. 9, when the Palestinian delegation tabled a motion to denounce the UAE and any other member state that might sign peace with Israel, both the Iraqis and the Lebanese abstained.

Beirut understood that anti-peace populism, as dictated by the Iranian regime, could wait. The UAE houses one of the biggest Lebanese expat communities in the world. Despite slowing heavily, expat remittances is the only lifeline left for Lebanon’s free falling economy.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020. (Reuters)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020. (Reuters)

Weeks later, Lebanon put its interests ahead of Iranian dictates and empty slogans and agreed to talk to Israel to delineate shared borders. Lebanon hopes to produce gas from border areas on a scale big enough to generate foreign currency revenue that can replenish its overdrawn treasury. However, so far, offshore exploration missions have found no gas.

So while signs that the Lebanese are crawling from underneath the Iranian thumb and taking some baby steps on the Israeli issue that are in their national interests, Iraqis have yet to show such awareness. Granted that Al-Kadhimi’s statement on UAE’s sovereign decision and his vote at the Arab League indicate some savviness, yet the Iraqi political establishment remains far from coming to terms with the idea of peace with Israel.

Right after the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, a Shia mob in Baghdad hurled stones on Palestinian refugees, that numbered some 5,000, forcing them to take shelter at a UN camp on the border with Jordan. A majority of the Shia hated late president Hussein and perceived many Palestinians as working as his enablers, hence the Palestine cause never won traction with these Iraqis. But years of Iranian domination shifted the needle, even if Iran’s Iraqi puppets cannot argue their case against peace with Israel.

Qais al-Khazaali, the head of pro-Iran militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, once commented that peace with Zionists means spreading of homosexuality inside Iraq. Other pro-Tehran Iraqi politicians have expressed similar nonsense.

On the other side of the Iraqi political spectrum are Sunni loyalists of Saddam, who styled himself as Saladin, the conqueror of Crusader Jerusalem. In the 1980s, Saddam’s inspiration and uncle, Khairallah Talfah, printed a book in which he argued that three are not worth living: the Jews, the Persians and flies. Talfah was clearly impressed by Nazi propaganda among the Arabs, propaganda that eventually led to Jewish exodus from Iraq.

Unlike how Lebanon and Israel share disputed borders and fought decades of bloody wars, Iraq shares nothing with Israel and does not house Palestinian refugees. In their history, Iraq and Israel clashed only twice, when Tel Aviv bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, and ten years later when Saddam fired 39 Scud missiles on Tel Aviv, which resulted in no casualties. Eventually, Hussein agreed to pay Israel $74 million in compensation. The money was taken out of Iraq’s oil-for-food UN program.

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Aware of the thin history of aggression between the two, former lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi has been the most outspoken politician openly calling for peace with Israel. After al-Alusi visited Israel in 2005, his two sons were murdered, either by pro-Iran or Baathist militias.

But the mood in Iraq is against both: Shia militias and Sunni ISIS, many of whose leaders are holdouts from Saddam’s regime. The tens of thousands of Iraqis who took to the streets last October are citizens with awareness of benefit and cost, and realize that peace in general, probably including with Israel, means more trade, jobs and opportunity.

Like all other issues in Iraq that depend on restoring state sovereignty and the elimination of ISIS and the pro-Iran militias, Iraqi peace with Israel is incumbent on Iraq ridding itself of Iran’s dominance and becoming, once again, a normal state.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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