(January 7, 2019/KDJ) Middle East observers were stunned yesterday to learn that 15 Iraqi officials had visited Israel. These were not Kurds from the north, who have well-documented ties with the Jewish state. These were Arabs–both Sunni and Shiite–with a lot of clout in the war-torn country. Iraq’s First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Hasan Karim al-Kaabi, has called for an investigation of those who went to visit “the occupation.” The delegation, which visited in secret, attended meetings with Israeli politicians & university officials, and also visited Yad Vashem–Israel’s Holocaust memorial & museum.
It should not be a surprise that Israel is expanding ties with the Arab World. This is perhaps the worst-kept political secret in modern times. What was surprising is that this happened with Iraq, a war-torn country dominated by Israel’s nemesis, Iran, and infested with ISIS jihadists.
The Iraqi delegation’s visit was apparently to scout out the potential for future ties with Jerusalem. With this story breaking recently, it is likely to cause a panic in Tehran–just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman last year did. Already, Iraqis are getting fed up with Iran’s interference in the country. In the Kurdish north, the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) soared to victory over the Iran-aligned PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The PUK was seen by many Kurds to have betrayed their push for independence in 2017.
In the south, Iraqis have been engaged in anti-Iranian protests. Despite the Arab population of Iraq having a Shiite majority, like Iran, many still view them as Persian invaders. All of this comes at a time in which Saudi Arabia is making inroads into the country–further worrying Tehran. The Saudis themselves have deepened ties with Israel, and encouraged their neighbors in the Gulf and northern Africa to do the same. It is possible that Saudi Arabia and its close cohorts are trying to bring Iraq into the fold when it comes to an Arab-Israeli detente. This would complete the process of distancing Iraq from Iran and bringing it into a new, Pan-Arab (Pan-Semitic, possibly) fold by assimilating it into the Gulf.
Is It Good for Israel?
These developments are good for Israel, and also present the country with opportunities to create peace and conflict resolution. The Kurdish leadership in the north has put its independence aspirations–which still exist–on hold in favor of bettering its economy and institutions. This necessitates creating a better relationship with the central government in Baghdad. Some form of under-the-cover relations between Israel and Iraq may allow Israel to lobby Baghdad on behalf of the Kurds. Baghdad is already frustrated–as is Erbil–about Turkey’s repeated aerial incursions into the KRG to bomb Kurdish militants. Israeli-Turkish relations are already strained. Israel can help the Kurds and the central government maintain some level of dignity & sovereignty when it comes to Turkey’s violations of international law.
The Jewish state also could create a quid-pro-quo situation in Iraq. Theoretically, Jerusalem could offer the battered country technological assistance that could revive its economy. It could also use its vaunted expertise in counterterrorism & intel to assist the Iraqi military as well as Kurdish forces in targeting jihadist remnants left over from the ISIS war. In exchange, Iraq could take positions that are less overtly hostile to Israel and begin the process of extricating itself from the pro-Iran fold.
What the Future Holds
Decades of war have destroyed Iraq’s economic viability, social cohesion (not that there was any to begin with), military power, and independence. All of this had a disastrous effect on the civil rights and aspirations of minorities, such as Assyrians and Kurds. So far, they have put these aspirations on hold. But it is clear that remaining in Iraq–at least in the status quo–is not their ultimate aim.
Saddam’s dictatorship and wars with Kuwait and Iran weakened the country, leaving it vulnerable to the American invasion that destroyed his Ba’athist regime. Following this, the country was ravaged by war against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, along with corruption and incompetence in Baghdad and Iranian colonization. After nearly forty years of fighting, it is clear that it isn’t in Iraq’s best interests to remain in a state of war and hostility with minorities or Israel; isolated from the rest of the Gulf Arab states; or dependent on the increasingly-impoverished Islamic Republic. Eventually opening up to the idea of better rights and independence for minorities in the north will help Iraq’s reputation. So, too, will cooperating against terror with Israel and opening ties with it–in conjunction with Sunni Arab states that are engaged in a similar process. Isolating Iran will also strengthen Iraqi sovereignty and prospects for peace.