JERUSALEM — The leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democracy Party appeared on television this week to deny widespread rumors that the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan is harboring Israelis.
“There are none,” Masoud Barzani assured millions of viewers on Al Arabiya satellite television. “If there were to be, it would only be with the approval of Baghdad.”
Such approval does not exist, but it is no longer unthinkable. Israel is a major topic of conversation in Iraq today, and that conversation reveals a deep ambivalence: Although hatred and distrust of Israel remain high among Iraqis, normalized relations between the countries are being discussed unofficially as a realistic possibility once the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
Anti-Israel propaganda was common under Saddam Hussein. He championed the Palestinian cause, launched Scud missiles at Israel during the first Gulf War and paid stipends to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
America succeeded in getting rid of Saddam, but it cannot get rid of years of deep-seated hatred as quickly. A recent poll showed that Iraqis hate Israel and the United States more than they hate their former dictator. Conducted by the Iraqi Research Center, the survey found that 32% of Iraqis view Israel as their main enemy. America took second place (23%) and Islamic fundamentalist groups — who are largely blamed for all the suicide bombings that killed hundreds of civilians — took third. Saddam took fourth place.
This lingering hatred explains why Iraq’s interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, took so much heat when he shook Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s hand at the United Nations in September. Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah party practically accused Allawi of treason. “[It] is a sign of one of the most dangerous goals of the American war on Iraq, yanking Iraq from its place in the Arab and Muslim worlds and sticking it in the U.S.-Zionist political cosmos,” Hezbollah said in a statement. Allawi later said he didn’t notice whose hand he was shaking.
Two weeks ago, a warrant was issued by the Iraqi Criminal Court for the arrest of Mithal Al-Aloosi, the head of Iraq’s De-Baathification Committee, for visiting Israel. Al-Aloosi, who already had been kicked out of the Iraqi National Congress because of the visit, called the arrest warrant “madness.”
Al-Aloosi’s arrest warrant was produced under amended penal law number 111 of 1969, established during Saddam’s reign, which prohibits contact with any state that shows hostility toward Iraq. Despite recent Iraqi wars with Kuwait and Iran, travel to those countries is now permitted; Israel is the new Iraq’s lone official enemy.
Nevertheless, Iraqi politicians say there is still hope that America’s victory over Saddam eventually can bring normalization between Iraq and Israel.
“Iraqis need time,” said Ibrahim Mohammed Bahar Al-Ulum, an independent Shiite who was the minister of oil in Iraq’s former governing council. “It’s too early from the religious point of view and from the nationalism point of view.”
Al-Ulum believes that the Iraqi mentality must change. “Now we are focusing on rebuilding Iraq,” he said. “I don’t mean just physical rebuilding of infrastructure. I mean of the individual. This requires time and effort.”
While the Iraqis need time to shift their thinking, say Iraqi politicians, Israelis must make progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Mohammed Jassem Khudair, a religious Shiite from the Islamic Dawa Movement, said that resolving the Palestinian issue is key to a change in the Iraqi perception of Israel.
“The Iraqi people will change their views about Israelis if the Israelis solve the Palestinian issue peacefully without killing,” Khudair said, adding that “all the Arab countries will change their views.”
Hamid Alkifaey, spokesman of the former governing council and a political independent, said that without resolving the Palestinian problem first, “it will not be easy for Iraq to start relations with Israel.”
“It would be bad for Iraq and for the U.S. to force it,” Alkifaey said.
He added that any shift in diplomatic relations should wait until Iraq has an elected government, because pushing the unelected interim government to get friendly with Israel would confirm Iraqi fears that the goal of the regime change was to make the Middle East safer for Israel.
Once an elected government is in place, however, progress on the diplomatic front may be forthcoming. The same week that the Iraqi National Congress dismissed Al-Aloosi for visiting Israel, the Congress welcomed establishing relations with Israel if a future elected government chose to do so.
“As far as I’m concerned, Israel is a country that exists in the region and everyone accepts that Israel must stay and exist,” Alkifaey told the Forward. “Iraq and Israel have no mutual problem.”
“Definitely in the long term,” he concluded, “I see no reason why we shouldn’t have normal relations with Israel.”