Irbil Conference: Road to normalization with Iraq long and complex

Dr. Ronen Zeidel October 2021

A Sept. 24 conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, attended by some 250-300 Iraqis, issued an unprecedented call for establishing full diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel. News of the event was revealed by Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, who had helped convene, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The conference was organized by The Center for Peace Communications, a US-based non-profit headed by Joseph Braude, an American Jew of Iraqi origin on his mother’s side.

News of the conference was warmly received in Israel, perhaps too warmly. Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid rushed to welcome the news, with the latter noting that it had caught Jerusalem by surprise. The wide media coverage created the misleading impression that Iraq was offering its hand in peace, when in fact the conference communique drew widespread condemnation – from the office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, other politicians and the public.

The laws of Iraq, one of the few Arab states that never recognized Israel, include vestiges from the Baath Party rule that sentence to death “anyone praising Zionism”. In condemning the conference message, Al-Khadimi reiterated Baghdad’s official position advocating the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem and a just resolution of the Palestinian problem. The Shiite parties went even further and issued threats against conference participants, while the Shiite militias even threatened to fire rockets at Erbil.

Most conference attendees were members of the Sunni minority, especially of tribal groups. In his address to the conference (and his op-ed), al-Hardan linked normalization with Israel to the demand to grant federal status to Iraq’s Sunni regions, a highly sensitive issue accepted until 2014 after which it seemed to have been abandoned. That explains why criticism of the conference quickly deteriorated into expressions of ethnic Shiite-Sunni hostility, although none of the conference organizers are linked in any way to senior Sunni politicians. The Iraqi politician most identified with pro-Israel sentiment, former Parliament member Mithal al-Alusi, lives in Erbil but was not invited.

The timing of the conference in the lead up to the Oct. 10 elections forced Sunni politicians to issue harsh attacks against its participants, in a bid “to cleanse” the Sunni sect from any involvement in initiatives normalizing relations with Israel. Even the Sunni tribes denied any support for the event and its participants. The Kurdish hosts were also forced to deny having given permission for the event, the exposure of which placed them in an uncomfortable position on the eve of the elections and increased the security threat against them by Shiite militias. Nonetheless, the Kurds are unlikely to give in to demands that they hand over the conference organizers.

The backdrop of the conference is familiar to anyone following developments in Iraq and especially to social media activists. The attitude to Israel among the Iraqi public is mostly a consequence of concerns over Iran. For them, Israel is the antidote to the Iranian threat, reflecting the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Therefore, support for Israel is particularly evident when Iran and its backers attack Iraqi street protesters. With the streets of Iraq calm recently, the level of hostility toward Iran has declined. Conference participants were largely motivated by hostility toward Iran, but their position was perceived as irrelevant at this time.

Relations with Iran are not the only factor influencing attitudes toward Israel; relations with the Palestinians are also at play. At the height of the suicide attack period many Iraqis, especially Shiites, blamed the Palestinians for active participation in the killing of Iraqi citizens (many Iraqis claim that 400 Palestinian suicide bombers blew up in their towns. The real number was probably about 40). The number of such attacks has declined sharply since 2017. Given this relative calm, and in the wake of the May 2021 Operation Keeper of the Walls, the Iraqi finger of blame was replaced by public empathy for the Palestinians. While official Iraq cooperates with the Palestinian Authority, the Shiite militias cooperate on various matters with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organizations as part of the pro-Iranian resistance (muqawama) axis.

Embarrassing exposure

Nonetheless, the Erbil conference generated discourse on the normalization issue, some of it even positive. It appears to be making waves far stronger than the true impact of the event. The web sites of Israel’s Foreign Ministry have reported an increase in the number of followers and in the number of Iraqis expressing an interest in the event. The argument in Iraq is about the identities of those favoring normalization. Iran opponents claim the conference serves the goals of the pro-Iran parties with some even claiming Iran was actually behind the event. The Shiites are accusing the Sunnis (and Kurds), while others counter with a claim that even the greatest normalization opponents had contacts with Israel in the past.

Some lessons from the event could serve Israel in the future.

  1. A huge gap exists between the climate on social media and declarative public activity. The networks reflect (perhaps) the personal views of users in their private space. They can always be denied and they do not constitute a plan of action. The conference at which the speakers were publicly identified and a large number of participants were photographed placed people in a difficult position and embarrassing position, perhaps even a dangerous one. One of the participants even claimed he was brought there by a ruse. Should a similar conference be held in the future, it must be conducted in secret. Public conferences could follow at more advanced stages of a rapprochement process.


  1. Such an initial conference should be held outside Iraq, advisedly in Bahrain or the UAE. There was understandably special value to holding the event on Iraqi soil, but its exposure embarrassed the Kurdish regime greatly. Future cooperation with the Kurds could be impacted if Kurdish claims are true about the misleading information given by organizers in seeking permission for the conference.


  1. The timing of a future conference is also important. This time it was held against the backdrop of the most important annual Shiite pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala. Pilgrimages intensify ethnic and religious emotions, all the more so on the eve of elections. He pro-Iran parties are taking advantage of the conference for their purposes and might emerge strengthened.


  1. A future conference must be a comprehensive, pan-Iraqi event. The organizers must not be pulled into the quagmire of Iraq’s ethnic conflicts or contribute to their exacerbation in any way. The emerging picture of the event suggests that organizers hooked up with elements motivated by local, ethnic and tribal agendas, which should not be linked to normalization. The link made by speakers between a renewed relationship with Iraqi Jews, Sunni federalism and normalization with Israel was forced. There are many Iraqis of all sects, even in Erbil, who support the goals of the conference and with whom cooperation is possible – politicians, intellectuals, media personalities, civil society activists, and others. They are Iraq’s future.


  1. The remarks by one of the speakers, Dr. Sahar Altai of the Ministry of Culture, included practical steps for the next stage: Meetings with Israelis and cooperation in fields such as healthcare, water and tourism. This is the direction that should be pursued. Israel should organize visits of small delegations from among the conference activists, as it did in the past with various Iraqi groups.


  1. Iraq, the biggest Arab country east of Israel, operates differently than all the other Arab states, and especially those that have normalized relations with Israel. It does not have a king or president who can do as they please. In every contact with the Iraqis one must remember that some of the country’s senior politicians are not at all hostile to Israel. These are the people with whom contact should be made or from whom a signal should be awaited. What is more, lacking an authoritarian regime, contact with the Iraqi public is of great importance. Such contact should be ongoing, constant, and based on dialogue and on a shared vision and culture, not only on the existence of a shared rival.
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