Iraqis want a peace deal with Israel - opinion

Why is the Iraqi government opposed to signing a deal when other Arab countries did the same thing under the Abraham Accords?

 IRAQI DEMONSTRATORS express solidarity with the Palestinian people at a protest in Baghdad during the Gaza conflict in May.  (photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
IRAQI DEMONSTRATORS express solidarity with the Palestinian people at a protest in Baghdad during the Gaza conflict in May.

In early fall, Iraq was in the news over the prospect of normalizing relations with Israel. On September 24, At a conference organized by the US-based Center for Peace Communications on September 24 held in the city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, participants argued that Iraq should recognize Israel as a friendly country in order for regional peace to be established. The organizers of the conference have since been on the receiving end of a fierce backlash that has included arrest warrants, requests for executions and death threats. The uproar shows how the Iranian backed government in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, is far from signing a peace deal with Israel.

Aside from the government’s response, questions remain over the idea of Iraq normalizing ties with Israel. In particular, would Iraqis object to such a move? And why is the Iraqi government opposed to signing a deal when other Arab countries did the same thing under the Abraham Accords?

In August 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to normalize relations with Israel, setting in motion what came to be known as the Abraham Accords. Bahrain joined the initiative a month later, and all three parties signed a declaration in Washington that recognized “the importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence, as well as respect for human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom.” Following that, Sudan made peace with Israel in October and Morocco in December. All of the deals were facilitated by the Trump administration; the latter two agreements involved the US removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, respectively. The accords defined a new era of peace and ties with Israel in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Given that these Arab countries are pragmatic about establishing official ties with Israel, it is also reasonable to expect Iraq to follow suit. After all, relations with Israel could have a significant impact on Iraq. Trade between the two countries would create jobs for Iraqis and lead to foreign direct investment. The purchasing of weapons and aircraft from Israel, and holding joint military exercises would strengthen the Iraqi army, which was brushed aside by the Islamic State in 2014. Despite these possible advantages of normalization with Israel, the Iraqi government’s opposition to the conference was severe (with allegations of treason and unconstitutionality). The backlash undermines the Iraqi citizens’ right to express themselves within a supposedly democratic atmosphere in post-war Iraq.

The actual reasons for the government’s anti-Israel politics

 Iraq flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Iraq flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We know that this Iraqi government’s backlash, as well as any of its decisions, is aligned with Iran’s agenda: seeming to be an opponent to Israel. This level of opposition to the conference also represents the anocracy state, the current sectarian ruling in Iraq. Post 2003, a power vacuum facilitated the external influence initiated by Iran, supported by the Shia majority. Also, the advent of the Islamic State and its control of parts of Iraq (and Syria) in 2014 provided Iran with another opportunity to expand its influence. As a result of Iran’s control, Iraq’s political issues have deepened divisions in the multi-ethnic multi-sect country and dramatically weakened the government’s ability to create a functioning society and economy. Alliance with Iran will never lead to positive change, since Iran, the role model itself, is a failing deteriorating state. In October 2019, protests began in Iraq demanding an end to Iranian backed sectarianism and militarization.

Here, as an Iraqi, my question is: Why do we maintain harmful relations with Iran while opposing potentially advantageous normalization with Israel? Unfortunately, Iraqis know that for the current Shia government officials, safeguarding their own existence and allying with Iran is more important than the interests of their people.

A pragmatic prospect to Iraq’s normalization with Israel

Pragmatically, normalization with Israel holds promising economic and diplomatic advantages. Grounded in reality, Iraqis now recognize that peace and security are essential for future progress. Despite the false distortion, the conference resonates with a larger Iraqi audience, who find peace with Israel supportive in spawning positive change. According to Joseph Braude, president of the organization sponsoring the conference (the US-based Center for Peace Communications): “Millions of Iraqis want civil engagement and partnership with Israelis but are prevented from saying this openly.” As an Iraqi, I know that a substantial ratio of Iraqis secretly want normalization similar to the UAE, but they must hide that, fearing a similar fate to the conference participants.

The aftermath of the backlash

Overall, the conference in Erbil confirmed a predicted reaction of an anocracy government. It has become clear that the current Iran-backed Iraqi state fears an open discussion about Iraqi-Israeli relations and therefore forces a false public consensus that Iraqis reject peace with Israel. In order for Iraqis to speak their minds, they must be allowed to have an open dialogue where they do not fear the consequences.

It is also obvious that a scenario of Iraq’s peace with Israel requires an unlikely change in the Iraqi regime. This might only be possible in a vague future, especially given that the results of the recent parliamentary elections in Iraq favored Shia clerics, such as the openly anti-Israel Muqtada Al-Sadr lead Sadrist movement.

After 18 years of hope for change, Iraqis are exhausted and need concrete solutions. As an Iraqi, I believe that we need a collective mind-shift towards a pragmatic political agenda that works for Iraq’s interests. In order to pull Iraq out of its current civil unrest, new strategies should be considered that include rethinking foreign relations. Peace with Israel could be a strategic move leading to regional stabilization and improvement.

The writer is an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University. She is a female academic who witnessed women’s rights issues within the civil unrest of post-war Iraq, escaped to the United States and earned a doctorate degree. She is an activist and a writer who focuses on social and political change in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as feminism and increasing awareness of women’s rights in the region.