The graduation ceremony of the Department of Hebrew Language at Baghdad University is considered one of the best on campus. In 2010, at the height of the evening, a female graduate interpreted the songs of the popular Israeli singer Sarit Hadad, thrilling the audience which included students from across the university. This courageous act and the way it was received attests to a fascinating change in the way Israel is perceived in Iraq.
Since then, the number of Iraqis making contact with Israelis has grown tremendously, mainly through social networks. Among other things, Iraqi surfers recently set up a Facebook page called “The Virtual Embassy of Iraq in Israel”. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reports that about one-third of the Ministry’s Arabic site’s followers (ca. half a million) are Iraqis, and their attitude toward Israel is generally positive and friendly. In their honor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently inaugurated a unique Facebook page called “Israel in the Iraqi Discourse”, which received very positive comments and raised much interest in Iraq. In addition, other interested Israelis (for the sake of full disclosure, the author of this article is among them) maintain daily contact with many friends throughout Iraq.
A segmentation of the Iraqi participants in the discussions conducted on the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic page shows that most of the participants are educated young people between the ages of 18 and 35, an age group that accounts for about 70 percent of Iraq’s population, with about a third of them living in Baghdad. They are not afraid to disclose their real names and photographs, and they represent various Iraqi population groups: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, and others. These young people are usually politically and socially active and constitute the backbone of Iraq’s educated class. They came to deal with Israel and Israelis out of interest in the Jewish past in Iraq or out of a certain attraction to the democratic and liberal model presented by Israel. Recently, their support for Israel has grown in the face of their hostility to Iran. Their positions on the Israeli issue are distinctly different from those prevailing in the Arab world.
Unlike other Arab countries, the interest in Israel among Iraqis is not confined to politics; it extends to the cultural and religious spheres and the daily aspects of life in Israel. Many Iraqis openly express their desire to visit Israel, but when they try to carry it out they encounter the arbitrariness of the Israeli establishment and are generally refused. The two pages of the Foreign Ministry in Arabic frequently publish non-political articles that shed light on different aspects of the Israeli way of being which raise great interest among Iraqi users. The knowledge of young Iraqis about Israel is sometimes surprising, as demonstrated through the popularity of Sarit Hadad.
It is difficult to determine whether the phenomenon is limited to social networks or whether it will also have political ramifications in future. The educated Iraqi youth in question influence the political and cultural agenda and shape public opinion. Yet in recent elections in Iraq, many of them supported the boycott movement, and others voted mainly for the parties of al-Sadr and al-Abadi, or for smaller parties on the fringe of the Iraqi national and anti-Iranian camp.
For some reason, official Israel has not yet discovered Iraq, the largest Arab state on the East. Iraq is the second largest exporter of oil in the world, after Saudi Arabia, and is a significant potential trading partner. Iraq, which is being rebuilt, is desperate for assistance with infrastructure construction, banking, irrigation, agriculture, communications, and more. It also needs indirect assistance with improving its credit rating and with encouraging foreign investments. Iraq would also welcome the assistance of Intelligence services in its fight against terrorism, in which Iraq has acquired great skill in recent years.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of secondary importance in shaping Iraq’s official position vis-a-vis Israel. The Iraqi public is quite indifferent to Palestinian suffering, and Iraq supports the Arab peace initiative, which calls for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose capital is East Jerusalem. It does not recognize the Hamas rule in Gaza.
As Iraq enters the period of establishing a coalition that will paralyze the political system for a while, it is worth thinking about how Israel should approach this important country. While the Iraqi political echelon is preoccupied with its own affairs, the educated and the young people discuss the matter openly and boldly. In its attempts to establish relations with the Arab states, Israel tends to focus on forging contacts with the political elite, and sometimes only with one specific leader. This is how peace agreements were reached with Egypt and Jordan, and to a great extent this is also the story of the Oslo process with the Palestinians. The educated middle class in the Arab countries was neglected and as a result became alienated from the process and hostile to Israel. Iraq offers the opportunity for a different process which may begin with the educated class and will prepare the ground within wide and influential circles before the formal diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries begins. This different process will lay a firm foundation for future relationships.
Dr. Ronen Zeidel is a senior researcher of Iraq at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University and a research fellow at the Mitvim Institute. This article is based on a study on Israeli-Iraqi relations which is part of the “Israel-Arab Relations: The Unfulfilled Potential” project.