Israel-Iraq Cooperation in 2019: Security Challenges and Civilian Warming

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The final months of 2019 were marked by widespread, prolonged protests throughout Iraq. The demonstrations, centered in Baghdad, targeted the ruling political elite and the state backing it: Iran. When Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned at the end of November, he threw official Iraq into a political vacuum and guaranteed that any premier appointed to replace him would be considered an interim ruler whose government would only be accepted by the weakened political elite, and not by a significant part of the population. Today, a replacement is yet to be found.

Despite the local turmoil, 2019 saw no significant changes in terms of diplomatic relations between Israel and Iraq. Neither was there any development in the economic arena, where ties between the states remain non-existent.

However, Israel’s perception of Iraq as a security challenge went up a notch. After ignoring Iraq for several years, Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior defense officials changed course in 2019. They know Iraq is an important part of the supply route of ballistic and other weapons from Iran to the front with Israel. Israel also closely monitors the construction of a military base near the Syria-Iraq border, and last summer, several fatal drone attacks conducted against Shiite militia bases in Baghdad and deep in Iraqi territory were attributed to Israel. These were the first strikes on Iraq for which Israel took responsibility in almost 40 years; their predecessor is, of course, Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

Yet Iraq’s official response was meek. The investigative committee that was appointed belatedly determined that Israel was responsible. However, the Iraqi government did not commit to a response. It was embarrassed and portrayed as weak. The militias, for their part, adopted increasingly harsh rhetoric against Israel, but Iraqi civilians condemned the manner in which Iran sought to turn their country into a wrestling ring with the US and Israel.

The Kurdish region has not taken part in the countrywide protests but, given its dependence on developments in Baghdad, it has been affected nonetheless. Not unexpectedly, Kurdish efforts to repair ties with Iran negatively impacted Israeli-Kurdish relations, at the same time as Israeli-Iraqi relations took tentative steps forward.

In the civilian, cultural and identity arenas some progress has been made, and there is currently more interaction between Israelis and Iraqis, although not on the official level. The Iraqi political elite is bound to Iran on the Israel issue, but this has not prevented a grassroots, people-to-people model of “winning hearts and minds”. Significantly, this trend continued and even intensified after the demonstrations in Iraq broke out. Privately, through social media and rare visits, a growing number of Iraqis express desire for ties with Israel after their country undergoes change. They also plead with Israel to support them by harming Iran. The protesters refrain from publicly identifying with Israel, due to claims by the regime that the protesters are backed and funded by Israel – but tellingly, anti-Israel expressions are extremely marginal.

Israel backs this trend. Notably, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a Facebook page “Israel in Iraqi Dialect”, a unique, first-of-its-kind effort, in late 2018. The Arabic-language page is aimed at encouraging discourse with the Iraqi people, and it gained huge momentum in 2019, especially after expressing clear sympathy for the protesters, who responded with appreciation. Today the page boasts some 292,000 followers. Meanwhile, four delegations from Iraq visited Israel in 2019 as guests of the Foreign Ministry, and Iraqis were also included in another visiting Arab delegation.

In that sense, it can perhaps be said that official Israel “discovered” Arab Iraq in 2019. Whereas Israeli declarations of solidarity were previously directed mainly at the Kurds and their aspirations, no such declarations were issued in 2019. Yet July 2019 saw another leap in messages from Israel to Iraq.

First Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, publicly wished the Iraqi people well and expressed his desire for increased cooperation with them. The nature of his Facebook video sought to bypass the government and avoid a direct appeal to the regime. In November, after the wave of protests began, Katz issued a message of support for “the Iraqi people” and their justified demands. And in December, Netanyahu condemned the massacre of protesters carried out by militias in Baghdad and blamed Iran for the bloodshed. Israel’s senior echelons view the protests as an opportunity to challenge Iran – but to date Israel is the only state in the region to have expressed support for the protesters and their demands.

A threat remains, however, After the Foreign Ministry leaked news of the visits in April, discussions began in Iraq regarding normalization of ties with Israel. Yet the militias took the most radical line against the issue, and threats facing Iraqis who meet with Israelis are both serious and tangible.

Today, Iraq stands at an internal crossroads; the direction it takes is bound to impact its relations with Israel. If the protests are suppressed with active Iranian support, Iraq will inevitably become Iran’s first “proxy state” in the region. If Baghdad is, de facto, ruled by the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds force, the puppet regime in Baghdad will be almost wholly unable to resist Iranian demands.

Should this happen, repercussions will be felt mostly in the realm of security. For example, Iran could move ballistic equipment to Syria without interruption – and perhaps even use Iraq as a launch pad.

A continued status quo between the government and the protesters in Iraq will further weaken the government, which is already forced to lean on Iran as its sole source of support. The little legitimacy it retains will disappear. Iraq will sink into political paralysis and selfcenteredness, and will lose even more of its importance as a factor and target for improved relations with Israel. But if the protesters succeed in overthrowing the regime, an opportunity will open up for Israel. The deep anti-Iranian sentiment underpinning the protests will lead the state’s new rulers to distance themselves from Tehran. The new Iraq will seek new regional allies that respect the change it has undergone, which would align satisfyingly with Israeli interests.

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