A CHANGING ATMOSPHERE IN BAGHDAD
For 35 years, Israel was a major target for rhetorical, ideological, and military attacks by the Ba’thi regime. Yet with the collapse of the Ba’th and the many changes that have occurred in Iraq, Baghdad’s posture toward Israel has changed significantly. The harsh anti-Israel rhetoric has all but disappeared. Similarly, the vocal and actual commitment to the Palestinian cause has been reduced considerably.
These changes were related to various tactical and strategic factors. An analysis of these factors must begin with Baghdad’s need to devote all of its energies to domestic issues: the atomization of the political system, which allowed for different foci of power to develop their own agendas; Baghdad’s ongoing inability to develop independent and clear-cut foreign policy lines; and Iraq’s frustration with many Sunni Arab regimes, which chose to ostracize Iraq in the years after Saddam’s fall. The deeper causes of the changes in Iraq’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict are directly related to the American presence in the country and its moderating influence on its partners there; the urge of the present government in Baghdad to rid itself of Ba’thi influence, including the Ba’th’s ideological baggage; the more liberal, pluralistic, and open society and polity that has been developing in Iraq in spite of opposite currents; and most importantly the strengthening of the Kurds in their autonomous region and, especially in Baghdad.
Having been Israel’s tacit ally from 1965-1975, the Kurds could now become an important moderating factor vis-à-vis Israel. The fact that since the establishment of the new regime the post of foreign minister has been in the hands of a Kurd, Khoshyar Zibari, is in itself very important. The same is true for the presidential post, which is manned by Jalal Talabani. Indeed, the Kurds have been playing an important role as a moderating force with regard to the Iraqi stance toward Israel, both in the parliament and in the government. Yet, without belittling this role, it must be stressed that on the whole, the toning down of the anti-Israeli mood in Baghdad has either been due to the American influence there or because there were more burning issues to deal with.
On the political level, then, a certain change in atmosphere has been noticeable through some small, individual gestures and in direct and indirect moves by the Iraqi government. Thus, for example, in 2004, then Prime Minister Iyad Allawi shook hands with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at the UN. Allawi later explained that he acted out of politeness, but if one recalls Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s refusal to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one could say that the handshake was not without significance. Another famous handshake was that between Talabani and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in July 2008 at a conference in Greece. Subsequently, Talabani attempted to downplay the gesture, describing it as a “civilized social act” without special significance. He further stated that he was acting as leader of his Kurdish party and deputy president of the Socialist International, not as Iraq’s president: “It does not mean any obligations for the state of Iraq,” he emphasized. Still, one could have never expected such a gesture from President Saddam Hussein. Moreover, Talabani’s explanation is very interesting since it justifies in a roundabout manner relations between the Kurds and Israel.
The visits to Israel in September 2004 and September 2008 of the head of the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation and member of the Iraqi parliament Mithal al-Alusi is another case in point. Upon his return from Israel, the Iraqi parliament voted to remove Alusi’s parliamentary immunity, and the minister for parliamentary affairs even sought to prosecute him for “visiting a country that Iraq considers an enemy,” a crime which could carry the death penalty. However, Alusi appealed to the Supreme Federal Court, which overturned the lifting of his immunity, ruling that it was unconstitutional, as no crime had been committed. Thus, more than the visit itself, the parliament’s ruling was of the utmost significance, establishing a precedent that could be used by other Iraqi politicians wishing to follow in Alusi’s footsteps.
On another level, Iraq’s reaction to the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 and the war in Gaza in early 2009 was not as harsh and as vitriolic as those of other radical Arab states or even non-Arab Turkey. It is true that the parliament condemned the wars, as did Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, however, there was no attempt to mobilize the wars for domestic purposes. Another indication of the more moderate Iraqi stance was that it did not participate in the March 2009 Arab summit in Qatar, which convened to discuss Israel’s war in Gaza. As such, Baghdad aligned itself with the more moderate Sunni Arab countries, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which did not participate either. All in all, Iraq has distanced itself from its traditional radicalism, adopting a more pragmatic and moderate posture.
These positive developments should be weighed against more negative ones. Most troubling are the ever-deepening ties between Baghdad and Tehran in post-Saddam Iraq. In fact, Iraq is now moving in the orbit of Iran, which will do its utmost to frustrate any cooperation between Baghdad and Jerusalem. Understandably, as long as the United States is in Iraq, Iran’s negative influence can be contained to some extent. However, one should also remember that the U.S. ability or willingness to challenge Iran on this matter is limited. Similarly, there are limits to Washington’s willingness to promote relations between Israel and Iraq. Thus, for example, on June 5, 2008, a non-binding resolution demanding Iraqi recognition of Israel was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, gaining the support of more than 60 congressmen, including several senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee. However, considering such a move risky for the Iraqi government, the White House did not press for its adoption and let it die a quiet death. Similarly, the new Obama administration’s move to open a dialogue with Iran might also further reinforce Teheran’s position in Iraq and thus frustrate any possible overtures by Baghdad to normalize relations with Israel.
The dangers emanating from Teheran to Israel are likely to increase over the longer term, especially once American troops are no longer present in Iraq. Iran is likely to increase its ideological, political, and religious pressure on Iraq–especially on the Shi’a–to join what the Bush administration called “the axis of evil.” Worse still, Iran might use Iraq as a launching pad for attacks against Israel. Close ties between Teheran and certain Iraqi Shi’i groups are the best vehicle for such a move. Another negative factor is the urge of the radical Shi’i groups–especially that of Muqtada al-Sadr–to bandwagon with Lebanon’s Hizballah. On another level, the Israeli war in Gaza dealt a blow to budding economic and people-to-people contacts. Finally, the fear of acting in opposition to a supposed consensus in Iraq and the Arab world regarding ties with Israel is still an important consideration for Iraqi policymakers.
Notwithstanding these negative factors, Israel should take advantage of the improved atmosphere and changing balance of power in the region to develop ties with the more moderate forces in Iraq. Thus, in spite of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, or even because of it, official Israel should not antagonize Iraq’s Arab Shi’a by unduly emphasizing the dangers of the Shi’i crescent. Instead, it should encourage such Shi’i figures as Iyad Allawi, Kanan Makiyya, or Naji al-Wa’ili to play a moderating role in Iraqi society as well as in the corridors of power in Baghdad. Israel is likely to find counterparts among the more secular forces in Iraq and all those who fear the deepening Iranian penetration. These may include not only Shi’a but Sunnis as well. However, quite understandably the most promising possibilities lie in cooperation with the Kurds.
The potential for developing ties with Iraq lies in three areas: the political, the social-humanitarian and the economic. The easiest and most promising is, of course, the economic field, and it is here that Israel has had its greatest achievements. Still, practically speaking, any further commercial and economic deals between Israeli companies and Iraqi partners should be undertaken with the greatest discretion and caution lest they be discovered by Iranian agents and cause severe financial and material damage.
SOME POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS
Legally speaking, Israel and Iraq are in a state of war. In fact, Iraq is the only Arab country that participated in the 1948 war but did not sign a ceasefire agreement with Israel. Hence any contacts or deals between the citizens of the two countries might be considered an act of treason. To overcome this difficulty, certain moves were taken on both sides to facilitate such contacts.
On the Israeli side, decrees were issued on a yearly basis, starting from 2003, allowing Israelis to do business with Iraqis. As far as is known, no such action was taken by Iraq. In practice, however, even during the Saddam Hussein era, like other Arab countries that had no relations with Israel, Israeli goods found their way to Iraq through third-party agents, allowing them to benefit from its technological know-how and other materials.
After the 2003 war, Israel benefited indirectly from certain agreements that were signed with the Americans. Thus, for example, on July 11, 2005, Iraq and the United States signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) as a first step toward creating liberalized trade and increasing investment flows between the two countries. Since many of the transactions between Israel and Iraq were made through the Americans and for the American army, Israeli businessmen stood to benefit from the agreement as well.
On another level, the huge devastation wrought to Iraq by 25 years of intermittent inter-state and civil wars, has shaped Iraq’s choice of investors and investments in the country. Thus, the investment law of October 2006, adopted during the worst period of the factional strife in Iraq did not mention any ban on Israel or Israelis. While it is true that Iraq did not declare its intention to put an end to the Arab economic boycott on Israel, shortly after the collapse of the Ba’th, Israeli firms began dealing with Iraqis through third parties. In this regard, Iraq was no different from other Arab states that had benefitted from Israeli goods and technological know-how in spite of the official boycott. In fact, the softening in other Arab countries of the Arab boycott against Israel eased Iraq’s ability to take such a move. To be sure, Saddam Hussein’s regime itself made use of such deals.
What was different now was the intensity and depth of these exchanges, due first and foremost to the U.S. presence and their own need for immediate supplies to their huge army. This, together with the openness and relative security in the Kurdistan region, made commercial deals with Israeli firms and investors desirable for both parties.
According to non-Israeli sources, Israeli activities in Iraq, especially in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), are quite widespread. Seymour Hersh, for example, claims that Israeli intelligence and military operatives are quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. He further contends that the Israeli operatives include members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports. Another source claimed that Israel was behind the creation of a Kurdish central bank in Kurdish northern Iraq, and that there were mysterious Israeli American advisors to Iraqi Kurdish leaders.Similarly, Iraqi sources, especially Shi‘i ones, have published lists of scores of Israeli companies and enterprises active in Iraq through third parties. While one cannot corroborate all such accounts, Israeli sources have reported on some of these matters as well. For example, the Israeli Yedi’ot Aharonot newspaper published an exclusive regarding Israel’s training of the Peshmergas, the Kurdish paramilitary force. Other reports mentioned the activities of certain companies. Still, there is a need for an overview of potential fields for further activities.
POTENTIAL PARTNERS AND AREAS OF COOPERATION
Israel and the Kurds appear to be natural allies, with their ties going back to the 1950s, when the idea of the peripheral alliance was first launched. In fact, discrete relations have continued for most of the time ever since and this provides a good basis for promoting relations. Another important consideration is the relative quiet and security the region enjoys in comparison to other more turbulent regions. The dangers of being penetrated by Iranian agents also seems lower there than in the center and the south of the country. Similarly, the fact that the Kurdish region has opened its doors to so many companies and enterprises from all over the world makes it much easier for Israeli entrepreneurs to act there too.
On the whole, one can say that there is eagerness among the Kurds for such cooperation. According to a poll published on September 21, 2009, in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, 66.9 percent in Iraqi Kurdistan said they supported relations with Israel and 60.4 percent expressed a desire for open relations. Yet this interest in bilateral ties with Israel has also been accompanied by a fear of the reaction in the Arab world in general and among Arab Iraqis in particular. Arab media criticism of the Kurds is encapsulated in such expressions as “the second Israel” or Kurdistan following in the footsteps of “Yahudistan” (“Jewishstan”). For its part, Israel, too, is willing to encourage strong ties with the Kurds, but it fears antagonizing Turkey and jeopardizing the strategic partnership with it. How can this dilemma be resolved?
Kurdish leaders themselves have issued some ambiguous statements, explaining that since Arab countries were conducting business with Israel, there was no reason why they should not do so. Israeli justification to Turkey could be the same: namely that Turkey has turned itself into the lifeline for Iraqi Kurdistan, enabling companies and investors from all over the world to do business there, and Israeli companies should not be the exception to the rule. Joint Turkish, Israeli, and Kurdish companies should also be encouraged.
Israel and Israeli firms and investors should concentrate on the following fields of cooperation: medicine, water management, agriculture, education and culture, tourism, high tech, reconstruction, banking, and consultation services on different projects through the Americans.
A sine qua non for Israel’s success in this region is the improvement of its image among both the intellectual elites and the population at large. Notwithstanding the fact that the leadership of most of the parties has had contact with Israel over the years, and that there exists certain affinities between the two non-Arab nations, there remain strong reservations among the Kurdish rank and file towards Israel. This is due to the lingering historical perceptions of the Jew as being inferior even to the Christian, let alone the Muslim, and more importantly Israel’s image as a country that betrayed the Kurds in 1975 and has been supporting Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
To overcome this hurdle, strong emphasis should be placed on cultural ties, in which intellectuals and academics could play an important role. Exchanges of university professors would be an important vehicle to this end, especially since Kurdish universities have only begun to take their first steps and there is eagerness to learn from the experience of Israeli universities. Translations from Kurdish to Hebrew and vice versa could be another field for encouraging people-to-people contacts. This could apply to both scientific works and literature. In this regard, it should be mentioned that Eliezer Safrir’s book, which deals with the Mossad activities in Kurdistan during the 1960s and 1970s, Ana Kurdi, has been translated into Kurdish and was published as a series in one of the Kurdish newspapers. One example in the realm of fictional literature could be Sami Michael’s latest novel Aida, whose hero is a Kurdish woman who found refuge from the horrors of Saddam’s regime in the house of one of the last Jews in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurds are also very keen to learn from the Jewish experience on how to publicize the Halabja affair and the Anfal Campaign in the court of world public opinion–as the Jews have done with the memory of the Holocaust–and in fact seek to use these episodes of Kurdish suffering as a lever for promoting their political agenda. Another potential Israeli contribution in the cultural sphere could be in helping with the revival and standardization of the Kurdish language. It should be noted that there are at least three main dialects or Kurdish languages and three different alphabets: Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic. Thus, just as Catalan language experts have come to Israel to study the ways and methods of the Hebrew revival and its becoming a unifying factor in the society, so too can Kurdish language experts benefit from the Israeli experience. Of course in regard to all these cultural activities, if they are indeed welcomed by the Kurds, Israel should be careful not to appear as encouraging Kurdish separatism.
Humanitarian aid is another important area for promoting people-to-people relations. This is true for Iraqis as a whole but especially to the Kurds. A particularly crucial field for enhancing such ties is that of medicine and medical facilities. In fact, Israel was a pioneer in this field in the 1970s, when it provided medical aid by sending Israeli doctors and medical facilities to war-torn Kurdistan. Now, after years of almost total neglect of the medical system in Kurdistan and the abundance of cancer cases following Saddam’s chemical attacks in the 1980s, there is an urgent need for infrastructure to help build a modern medical system. What is needed in this area are medical teams who could provide guidance and assistance to Kurdish staff; Kurdish doctors and other medical staff who would come to Israel for a short period of studies; and the establishment of advanced facilities, which are almost nonexistent in these regions. Such humanitarian assistance could also include bringing Kurdish and Iraqi children to Israel for treatment through such Israeli organizations as “Save a Child’s Heart.”
People-to-people ties may be also strengthened through tourism. Individual Israelis, most of whom are of Kurdish origin, began frequenting Kurdistan already in the 1990s. Following the 2003 war, the circle was enlarged to include other Israelis as well. On the whole, the affinity between the two non-Arab nations has made visiting Israelis quite welcome there. President Barzani himself called on Israelis of Kurdish origin to visit Kurdistan. Still, great caution is needed due to strengthening Islamist trends in the society, especially among the youth and in the universities. The reasons for this Islamization are manifold, including corruption among the ruling elite, Iranian influence, and the years of severe socioeconomic difficulties. Whatever the causes, such trends are likely to threaten Kurdish-Israeli relations.
While Kurdistan has rich water resources, problems of aridity, increasing exploitation by neighboring countries of water resources, and poor management of the hydraulic system has combined to create serious water shortages in the region. To help the KRG overcome these problems, Israeli engineers could be sent to the region to map the existing water system and suggest solutions.
The development of agriculture is another important area where Israeli experts could be of great help. Due to the many years of conflict, the once agriculturally rich region (including products such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and tobacco) was reduced to a desert-like area. Therefore, there is urgent need for technological know-how to help reinvigorate this section. The exchange of missions in this field should be continued and strengthened further.
Israel’s status as a leading country in the field of high-tech could also opens new vistas for cooperation with the Kurds. This is especially important in the burgeoning Kurdish economy. This could be done not just by way of selling technologies for internet and cellular phones, but also by helping Kurds to establish a basis for the development and employment of such technologies on the ground.
The banking system in Kurdistan is very primitive. The use of credit cards is still very limited and so are other banking facilities. The Jews of Iraq, who until the 1950s were the backbone of the banking system there, could play an important role in establishing such a system in the KRG.
Another area in which Israel could contribute is that of the development of oil fields. This of course should be done in cooperation with foreign companies, which are already active there.
Kurdish leaders also speak of a need for Israeli advisors to help unite the Peshmerga. It is currently divided into two forces: one under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) command, and the other under the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In the past, Israeli officers did help these forces in different ways. Still the question is if this has not become too much of a sensitive issue for Arab Iraq, the Americans, and Turkey, as they are likely to interpret such help as encouraging Kurdish separatism.
On the political and diplomatic level, contacts should be reinforced through Kurdish representatives in different countries and Jewish organizations and lobbies. The Kurdish Jews in Israel, who started initiating certain moves as early as the 1990s, could further facilitate such ties due to their common language and cultural background. In fact, the KRG feels at greater ease to develop ties through the Kurdish Jews of Israel since it could claim that it was dealing with Iraqi citizens. Thus, for example, Israeli members of the Knesset of Kurdish origin were invited to Kurdistan under this cover.
It goes without saying that the Americans working in Iraq may be the most important vehicle for developing such ties. However, they are also acting under severe restraints and they too would not like to appear as if they were facilitating an Israeli “imperialist onslaught” on Iraq. Similarly, the different NGO’s active in the KRG may be an important instrument, only that this should be done with the utmost discretion and prudence lest they reveal such activities to the “army” of Iranian agents found there.
The representatives of the KRG, as well as Kurdish and Iraqi exiles abroad in various different countries, could provide an important umbrella for such relations. The same holds for Iraqi intellectuals both outside and inside Iraq who participate in various international gatherings. Some of them are very eager to come to Israel, and the authorities should help them do so with all the necessary prudence.
Finally, the most promising arena is the swiftly developing business community, which is eager to do business with Israel, albeit through third parties. The main dangers here lie in the corruption sweeping throughout Iraq and the ability of such businessmen, entrepreneurs, and government officials–who are the backbone of this community–to respect their commitments.
The war in Iraq and the changing strategic map of the region has opened new vistas for Israel in Iraq. However, these are still fraught with dangers, risks, and no small amount of obstacles. The most promising venue for such ties is the KRG: It is assumed that this Kurdish section of Iraq will continue to be part of that country and, as such, the Kurds will have an influence on the future policy course of Iraq.
Yet this too is controversial as it might jeopardize relations with Turkey and because in the past such ties did not fulfill all Israeli expectations. Some Israelis have even warned of the Kurds’ “shifting sands” due to their ties with Iran, for example, which might endanger Israeli investments and other activities there.
Concerning the fear of antagonizing Turkey, it is possible to say that relations with Turkey and ties with Iraq in general and the KRG in particular need not be mutually exclusive. Second, Israel should understand the tremendous difficulties under which the Kurds are acting, lower its expectations, and reap whatever benefits possible under such circumstances.
Overall, the situation in Iraq is still in a great flux. Admittedly, the KRG is the safest and most secure region for Israeli activities. Still, here too, one should expect some instability in the near future, due to growing tensions between the KRG and Baghdad and the expected pullout of the American forces by 2011. Given these circumstances, Israeli activities should concentrate on economic, humanitarian, and cultural issues. They should also be low-key and far from the limelight so as not to embarrass its potential partners.
*Prof. Ofra Bengio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University.
 For a discussion of Ba’thi discourse on Israel, see Ofra Bengio, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Israel, Jews and Zionism in the Iraqi Media,” in Tudor Parfitt and Yulia Egorova (eds.), Jews, Muslims and Mass Media (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004) pp. 109-119.
 “Minister Shalom and the Prime Minister of Iraq Shook Hands” (Hebrew), Ynet, September 21, 2004, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/1,7340,L-2979898,00.html (accessed June 29, 2009).
 “Iraqi Leader Shakes Barak’s Hand,” BBC News, July 1, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7483844.stm (accessed June 29, 2009).
 AP and Herb Keinon, “Iraq May Execute MP for Visiting Israel,” Jerusalem Post, September 22, 2008.
 “Iraq: Parliament Member Who Visited Israel Wins” (Hebrew), Ynet, November 24, 2008, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3627884,00.html (accessed June 29, 2009).
 See Aswat al-Iraq, December 28, 2008, http://ar.aswataliraq.info/?p=117953; The Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, December 27, 2008, http://www.sistani.org/local.php?%20modules=extra&eid=2&sid=136 (accessed June 29, 2009).
 Nathan Guttman, “Bill Presses Iraq to Recognize Israel,” The Jewish Daily Forward, June 12, 2008.
 “Brosh: Israeli Companies Could Participate in Iraq’s Reconstruction as Secondary Contractors” (Hebrew), Globes, December 14, 2008, http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=750786 (accessed June 29, 2009).
 See the agreement at the Office of the United States Trade Representative site, July 11, 2005, http://www.ustr.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/agreements/tifa/asset_upload_file836_13617.pdf (accessed June 29, 2009).
 English translation of the law available at the International Trade Administration of USA website, http://www.trade.gov/static/iraq_investmentlaw.pdf (accessed June 29, 2009).
 “Al-Qissa al-Haqiqa li-Ikhtiraq Isra’il al-Iraq” [“The True Story Behind Israel’s Penetration of Iraq”], al-Muntada, April 16, 2005.
 Zadok Yehezkeli, Anat Tal-Shir, and Itamar Aichner, “Be’Oref Ha’Oyev” [“In the Enemy’s Back”], Yedi’ot Aharonot, December 2, 2005.
 Kurdroj website, July 3, 2008, http://ar.kurdroj.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1197&Itemid=27 (accessed July 2, 2009).
Ofer Petersburg, “Al-Qa’ida Neged Ha’Tayyarim Mi’Yisrael” [“Al-Qa’ida Against Tourists from Israel”], Yedi’ot Aharonot, July 19, 2009.