Washington - To the many challenges facing the fledgling Iraqi government, Congress may soon add this: Recognize the State of Israel and establish diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, or else risk losing some of the billions in aid that Baghdad receives from the United States.
A nonbinding resolution demanding Iraqi recognition of Israel was introduced June 5 in the House of Representatives and has already gained the support of more than 60 congressmen, including several leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The resolution puts Congress far out in front of the Israeli government and the White House, both of which to date have refrained from raising the issue. An Israeli source said that while Jerusalem expects every United Nations member state to recognize Israel’s right to exist and would like to have full diplomatic ties with all Arab states, the issue of Iraq “was not on the agenda” at present.
Congressional involvement in establishing Iraqi-Israeli ties came about in large part through serendipity. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat and a strong supporter of Israel, joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a visit last month to mark the country’s 60th anniversary. The congressional group left Israel for a day trip to Iraq, at the end of which it returned to Tel Aviv from Baghdad.
“As we got on the C-130 taking us back, we were advised we’d need to land in Amman, Jordan, touch down and then take off again to Israel,” Hastings told the Forward after returning to Washington.
The reason for the brief landing was diplomatic: Iraq, like most other Arab countries, does not allow direct flights to Israel.
“This offended me deeply,” Hastings said, adding that he had encountered a similar problem in the past, when traveling to Libya from Israel.
Upon returning to the United States, the Florida congressman drafted a resolution calling on Iraq to change its stance toward Israel, starting with official recognition of the Jewish state.
“Although the United States has provided Iraq with almost $50 billion in security and economic assistance to date, none of which has been repaid, the government of Iraq refuses to recognize the existence of Israel, the most reliable ally of the United States in the Middle East region,” the introduced resolution states. The resolution also calls on the White House to “use its influence to persuade Iraq and other countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations to recognize the right of Israel to exist and to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.”
While the current resolution is nonbinding, Hastings said he also would consider “more substantive” measures if Iraq does not change its approach to Israel. Such measures, he said, could include attaching the demand for recognition and diplomatic ties to one of the major funding bills.
The Bush administration, according to congressional staff members, has not yet provided lawmakers with its view on the proposed resolution. Historically, the State Department and White House have tended to oppose congressional legislation perceived as constraining the administration’s ability to determine foreign policy.
An Israeli official said that Jerusalem had not requested Hastings’s congressional resolution and had not raised the issue in talks with members of Congress. According to a congressional staff member, pro-Israel lobbyists on Capitol Hill were also not involved in the initiative.
A spokeswoman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington did not comment on the congressional resolution.
On June 10, Hastings began seeking co-sponsors for his proposed resolution. By the end of the day, nearly five dozen lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, had signed on. Many of them, according to Hastings, were surprised to learn that Iraq does not recognize Israel.
Critics of the resolution, for their part, argue that it would be counterproductive and would only undermine efforts to strengthen the central Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki.
“From all the Arab countries who do not have ties with Israel, Iraq is the last one we should be asking to do this,” said political scientist Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland. “Iraq is the most vulnerable of all Arab states.”
But the situation in Baghdad notwithstanding, Hastings believes that the Iraqi government should be called to task.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” the Florida congressman said. “And this is just not right.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.