Calls for peace with Israel backfire on Israel after Iraqi conference
A lot can change in a year.
Prior to Israel’s historic agreements with Arab countries starting in August 2020, openly discussing the possibility of normalizing relations with the Jewish state would have been unthinkable in Iraq. But last week, speakers at a conference attended by hundreds of people in the country’s Kurdish region did just that.
“It is both necessary and inevitable, for the sake of regional peace, to recognize Israel as a friendly country,” Sahar al-Ta’i, senior researcher at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and of Antiquities. “We want peace with Israel.
While this public appeal is unprecedented, the backlash indicates that Iraq is still a long way from declaring peace with Israel. Instead of boosting prospects for peace, the September 24 conference may have played into the hands of hardliners vehemently opposed to normalization.
The Iraqi government condemned the conference and issued arrest warrants for two of the keynote speakers and at least three other participants, including al-Ta’i, who was also dismissed from his post at the culture ministry. The conference organizer said al-Ta’i attended in a private capacity.
Under Iraqi law, it is illegal to promote “Zionist principles”.
NBC News was unable to reach al-Ta’i for comment by phone.
Powerful Iran-backed groups also condemned the meeting in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. They demanded that those involved be prosecuted.
“The killer Zionist entity will have no place in Iraq of prophets, saints, martyrs and righteous,” said Fatah, a political bloc in the Iraqi parliament representing militias and Shiite parties backed by Tehran, in a press release on September 25. referring to Israel.
According to Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, the conference ended up being counterproductive to the cause of standardization.
“He mobilized Islamist parties, parties aligned with Iran who found there a good pretext to appear as those who truly represent Iraqi public opinion and oppose Israel,” he declared.
Iraq has technically been at war with Israel since its founding and for decades has been one of the Arab world’s most enthusiastic supporters of the Palestinian cause. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
Now, even after the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have normalized their relations with Israel, doing the same remains politically and socially taboo in Iraq.
Even though there was an appetite for normalization, Fanar Haddad, former foreign relations adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said the country’s weak centralized power and Iranian influence meant recognition of Israel was currently not something that could be seriously considered.
“Iraq simply does not have this sovereign centralized decision-making power that would be necessary for such a reorientation,” he said of foreign policy.
Meanwhile, in a country where militias operate largely with impunity, the backlash at the conference could deter Iraqis who support normalizing ties with Israel from speaking out again anytime soon. At least two participants have since said they had been misled about the purpose of the meeting and one has apologized to the Iraqis and the Palestinian people.
One of them was Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan, the head of the Sons of Iraq Awakening Council, whose fighters joined US troops in the war against Al Qaeda at the height of the Iraq war and then went on to fought the terrorist group Islamic State.
Al-Hardan’s name appeared in a Wall Street Journal editorial last month calling for Iraq to establish full relations with Israel and he was among the speakers at the event in Erbil. But as the conference developed, he said in a video message posted online on September 25 that he believed the meeting was about peace and tolerance among the Iraqi people, and was surprised that the normalization with Israel be mentioned in the statement he read aloud at the event.
“I read the statement that was written for me without knowing its contents,” he said. “I denounce the content of the final declaration and what was stated there.”
The next day, an arrest warrant was issued against al-Hardan. Then, on Monday, he lost his post as head of the Sons of Iraq Awakening Council. Al-Hardan could not be reached for comment.
Joseph Braude, president of the Center for Peace Communications, a New York-based group that promotes engagement between Israelis and their Arab neighbors and organized Erbil’s conference, said al-Hardan knew what was in the speech.
Braude said al-Hardan wrote the speech with his help and al-Hardan endorsed the Journal article which was translated from Arabic to English by Braude.
Steve Severinghaus, the Journal’s senior communications director, said the newspaper worked through an intermediary and was told that al-Hardan approved the edited version.
Local journalists said al-Ta’i and al-Hardan remained in Erbil where Kurdish authorities have yet to arrest them. NBC News has not been able to independently verify this information. Kurdish authorities have in the past offered protection to Iraqi politicians crossing the central government, so this would not be the first time Erbil has defied orders from Baghdad.
Braude said his organization is doing everything possible to help participants who are now in danger.
Despite the backlash, he said the conference spoke of a much broader trend in Iraq and rejected speculation that the peace initiative was being pushed from abroad.
Millions of Iraqis want “civil engagement and partnership with the Israelis” but are prevented from saying so openly, he said.
Braude cited Iraqi engagement with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page in the Iraqi dialect, interviews with Iraqis over several years and an Israeli Foreign Ministry poll to substantiate claims of broad support for the normalization of relations.
Braude, who says her mother is an Iraqi Jew from Baghdad who fled in the early 1950s, founded the Center for Peace Communications. The organization was formed in 2019 and receives most of its funding from private philanthropists in the United States and none in the Middle East, he added. He did not disclose who his donors are, but said the center does not accept funding from governments.
A State Department official said the U.S. government was not involved in the conference and learned about it after the fact. The Biden administration has supported efforts to deepen ties between Israel and countries in the region, the official added.
Iraq’s Jewish community has its roots in ancient Babylonia, and in 1910 about a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish.. They played an important role in the creation of the modern Iraqi state, but Nazi-inspired riots in 1941 subsequently killed Jews and helped drive out the population. In the early 1950s, many fled to the new state of Israel.
There are no official statistics on how many Jews remain in Iraq today, but the Meir Taweig Synagogue, the main synagogue in central Baghdad, is closed and few Iraqis openly identify as Jews.
After America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran became one of the main intermediaries of power in that country, supporting the Shiite Islamist parties and militias that have dominated it since then.
Analysts said the conference would be used by Iran-aligned groups as evidence that there are people inside Iraq pushing for normalization with Israel. Haddad said these groups have often used normalization as a political insult to discredit and delegitimize their opponents.
“This now allows them to put imaginary flesh on an imaginary bone,” he said.
But Braude hoped that the voices for peace would prevail.
“It is nothing new for Tehran’s proxies to try to terrorize Iraqi dissidents to silence them,” he said. “What is new is that for the first time people are coming together publicly to call for peace.”