Arab and Muslim countries around the world are increasingly normalising relations with Israel. Turkey, for instance, recognised Israel in March 1949 – before the Jewish State’s first birthday – and was the first Muslim-majority country to do so. As the Arab nationalist regimes lost war after war against Israel, Egypt and Jordan also normalised ties in 1980 and 1994 respectively.
More recently, tribal oil monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have increasingly warmed up to Israel and on a more public basis, with US President Donald Trump hailing the Saudis for “helping Israel”.
However, it seems that a new friendship is budding in the region between once old enemies who have clashed in battle on several occasions. Unusually, signs have been emerging from Iraq that the new regime in Baghdad, unlike Saddam Hussein’s, is willing to play ball with Tel Aviv.
Since the New Year alone, Israeli media and the Israeli foreign ministry have confirmed that “prominent” and “influential” Iraqi political actors have secretly visited Israel and the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammed Ali al Hakim, said that it would be Iraqi policy to support a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’s a severe climbdown from not even recognising Israel’s right to exist to granting it de facto recognition. But why is Iraq gradually moving into Israel’s orbit?
Iraqi-Israeli relations pre-2003
When the State of Israel declared its existence in May 1948, Iraq immediately declared war on the “Zionist entity” and was part of the Arab military alliance that launched a botched invasion to restore Arab control over 100 percent of historical Palestine. Iraqi soldiers saw limited success on some fronts against the nascent Israel Defence Force.
However, Iraqi troops ultimately had to withdraw following the general rout suffered by Egypt, Syria and Jordan who – alongside the rest of the alliance – failed to coordinate their attacks under a unified chain of command that allowed Israel to defeat them piecemeal. As will be familiar to observers of modern Arab militaries, there are too many egos looking for personal glory rather than working in tandem to achieve a shared objective.
In the disastrous Six-Day War of 1967, Iraq again participated by deploying tanks, aircraft and men to the Israeli border with Jordan. Iraq suffered losses to its aircraft but notably managed to shoot down Israeli fighters, with some of the Iraqi planes piloted by volunteers from the Pakistani Air Force.
During the last major Arab-Israeli war in 1973, Iraq was not informed of Syria’s and Egypt’s plans for war and was caught by surprise when the conflict finally did erupt. Nevertheless, and having learnt lessons from the previous war, Iraq rapidly deployed armoured columns to Syria, and the actions of these formations famously caught the Israelis in their flank as they were advancing on Damascus. Iraqi forces thus prevented IDF troops from attacking the Syrian capital directly and stopped their advance.
Throughout that entire time, no documentary or even anecdotal evidence exists that showed Iraqi leaders – whether under the monarchy, military dictatorship, or Ba’athist regime – ever considered normalising ties with Israel. Iraq has been in a formal state of war for close to 61 years, and during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, former dictator Saddam Hussein ordered dozens of missiles to be fired on Tel Aviv, the last formal military action by an Arab power claiming to defend the Palestinian cause. He also provided financial aid to any Palestinian partisans killed by Israeli security forces.
Creeping normalisation in ‘democratic’ Iraq
So what changed? How can a country so implacably hostile to Israel suddenly be sending secret delegations and announcing that they would be seeking a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? The answer is quite simply that the entire calculus changed after the 2003 Iraq War.
While other parliamentarians and even pro-Iran militant groups threatened to find and punish those who had made the trips to Israel, there have been signs of an Iraqi political consensus on the desire to seek stronger ties with an enemy state since Saddam’s regime came to an end.
It is no secret that Israel and Iraqi Kurdish leaders are close friends with Tel Aviv consistently supporting Kurdish independence and even deploying its foreign intelligence agency Mossad to assist the Kurds on numerous occasions.
Closer to the power centre in Baghdad, former lawmakers such as the Arab liberal Mithal al Alusi visited Israel on at least two occasions in 2004 and 2008, and was even indicted on charges of “visiting an enemy state”.
Alusi has been outspoken on seeking closer ties to Israel, saying that there was no occupation of historic Palestine and that the two countries should share intelligence to combat Iran. His indictment was eventually quashed by the Supreme Federal Court that ruled that it was no longer a crime for Iraqi citizens to visit Israel, showing how the judiciary was used to legitimise interactions with Tel Aviv.
However loud the pro-Iran camp in the Iraqi parliament and militia groups may be today in calling the Kurds and liberals traitors, they too have their skeletons to contend with.
After all, and despite their patron Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran – stating that Israel must be destroyed, he had no qualms about offering intelligence to Israel when it bombed Iraq’s light-water nuclear reactor in 1981. He even had millions chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” as those two countries facilitated his war effort against Iraq with his full knowledge in the 1980s in the now infamous Iran-Contra Scandal that almost toppled the Reagan administration.
While the Iraqi population is by and large staunchly pro-Palestinian, the political classes amongst the Sunnis and Shia have been shown not to be representative of the people they are supposed to serve. In last year’s elections, a record low turnout of 45 percent is evidence of how Iraqis do not believe in their political representation.
Nevertheless, with groups supported by Iran having a link through Tehran to previously being open to cutting deals with Israel, and Sunni liberals and Kurdish separatists also enjoying warm ties to Tel Aviv via their friends in Washington, we should not be surprised to see Iraq engaging at least covertly with Israel. Any overt action is likely to inflame further tensions between the people and the politicians who have been accused of representing no one but their narrow interests.
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