Over the recent months, Israeli politicians, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as leading national media commentators and security officials, muse about a possible rapprochement to Sunni Arab countries. In his speech to the Knesset commemorating forty years to Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, Netanyahu claimed that cooperation with the leadership of Sunni Arab countries has reached unprecedented levels and added that the problem is not with the leaders but with the public opinion in the Arab world, which remains ant-Israeli. Media commentators oftentimes praise the advantages of relations with Saudi Arabia and call on the Israeli government to accept the Saudi-backed Arab Initiative to make that happen. Yet, politicians, officials, and commentators alike omit from their analyses the biggest Arab state east of Israel, namely Iraq.
Why does Israel ignore Iraq? Until 2003, Israel considered Iraq a major security threat. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was discarded as a major threat and naturally, Israeli interest in it, on both security and political levels, was somehow lost. The security-minded Israeli thinking still persists with the focus on Iraq as a cradle of regional terrorism. Add to that the fact that Israel sees Iraq as part and parcel of the Iranian space of influence in the Arab Middle East, allegedly stretching from Tehran to Beirut and often referred to as the “Shiite Crescent” or the Iranian “land bridge.”
Israeli decision-makers’ as well as commentators’ lack of interest in the political developments in Iraq, leads them to exaggerate in Iranian influence in Iraq and lose track of alternative trends.
Another prevailing view among many Israelis, emanating from top down, is that Iraq is not much of a “viable state.” Iraq is often described as either a “failed state,” an “artificial state,” a “collapsed state” or a combination of all three. The amazingly quick rise of ISIS in 2014, which culminated in the occupation of a third of Iraq’s territory, reassured many Israelis of the veracity of that image. Even the rapid and impressive military recovery of the Iraqi state and military since 2015 failed to convince Israelis that Iraq is indeed a viable state. Most of the Israelis prefer to believe that the American Coalition defeated ISIS and not the Iraqi armed forces, or at least supplied the military backing and assistance that made the whole thing possible.
Israeli soft spot for the Kurds
Ultimately, Israeli politicians from the entire political spectrum expressed enthusiastic support for Kurdish aspirations of independence. Around the ill-fated Kurdish referendum of September 25, some Israeli leading politicians even urged the Kurds to declare independence immediately. This, of course, raised concern in Iraq and wondering over the wisdom of this policy elsewhere. The purpose of this policy was primarily to punch regional adversaries like Iran and Turkey, but once more, implications of this policy on Iraq, the country most affected by the referendum, were not taken into consideration.
However, explaining this pro-Kurdish Israeli policy solely in regional terms is erroneous. The pro-Kurdish sentiments and attitude is widespread among many parts of Israeli society. Many evoke the short period of Israeli military support to the Kurdish militias in the 1960s and early 1970s and still see the Kurds as “our enemies’ enemies” and thus as “our friends.” Pro-Kurdish lobbies exist in political parties (particularly the Likud party), in universities, and on grassroot level. Many commentators, speaking of the “need to redraw borders in the Middle East” following the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014, saw that as the proper time to redress to Kurdish claim and establish a Kurdish state in Iraq.
Not an Iranian Puppet
The truth is that the current Iraqi state, under the rule of PM Haider al-Abadi, firmly opposes Iran’s involvement in its affairs and insists on its right to sovereignty and independence in decision-making. The Iraqi armed forces recently completed the liberation of all the country’s territories from the presence of ISIS, weeding out the organization completely. in the wake of the Kurdish referendum, al-Abadi’s government proved that it was the sole sovereign on the ground and forced the Kurds to accept a humiliating surrender and a de facto cancellation of the referendum results.
In other words, in recent years, Iraq has repeatedly proved its vitality as a state, its sovereignty and its independence in making its own decisions, and thus refuting claims of its being a “failed” or a “collapsed” state or of its becoming an “Iranian puppet.”
Today’s Iraq is far from being Iran’s “puppet” or “satellite state.” PM al-Abadi maintains a close and good relationship with US President Trump; In the Arab arena, al-Abadi has been courted by Saudi Arabia and has already visited it twice in recent months. Recently, al-Abadi has been cultivating a new political partnership with popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is widely regarded as a “kingmaker” in Iraq. Like al-Abadi, al-Sadr himself is promoting an agenda centered on strengthening the centrality of the Iraqi state, sticking to the “Sunni axis” (and has already visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and expressing vehement opposition to the Iranian interfering in Iraqi internal affairs.
The Shi’ite religious establishment in Iraq has always had its reservations about Iran and its Vilayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) political doctrine. Other elements in Iraq, namely the Sunnis and Kurds, traditionally expressed even greater disapproval and doubt towards Iran. Secular Iraqis of all sects and religions have reservations about the both Iran and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Iraqi politics and many of them have recently expressed cautious positions in favor of a rapprochement with Israel.
The pro-Iranian camp in Iraq includes former PM Nouri al-Maliki, along with some commanders in the militias known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The latter are not expected to run in the upcoming elections as a party representing the militias, but will rather support al-Maliki. Al-Maliki himself is certainly an experienced politician and an “election champion,” but the Iraqi public vividly remembers the many skeletons in his closet: his responsibility for the humiliating defeat in Mosul in the summer of 2014 and the collapse of the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS; his inflammatory sectarian policy; and the corruption charges that hovered above his government’s head.
For many in Iraq, Al-Maliki’s rival in the upcoming elections, PM al-Abadi, represents the exact opposite to all these: he represents accountability and prudence; fights corruption; blocks Iranian interference in Iraqi politics; and identified with the restoration of the army and the liberation of all Iraqi territories from ISIS. al-Abadi has therefore gained considerable support in large circles of the Iraqi public and is expected to win the election.
In any event, Iraqi general elections, expected to take place in April 2018, may have a significant impact on the region, and Israel, which fears increasing Iranian influence, should follow them with great interest. It would be advisable for Israeli establishment to “rediscover” Haider al-Abadi, appreciate his actions and policies, and potentially find discreet channels to reach out to him.
It is not to be expected that Iraq will initiate any rapprochement with Israel on its part. However, an Israeli refraining from expressing any position on controversial Iraqi internal issues, cautious in public statements regarding Iraq’s sovereignty, and perhaps silent exchange of messages through the Americans with al-Abadi, may lay the groundwork and contribute greatly to a certain, if limited and quiet, rapprochement between two countries that have quite a bit in common.
This article first appeared in Hebrew on the website of The Forum for Regional Thinking.