Remarks by Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Farid Yasseen whipped up a diplomatic storm that moved beyond social media.
Yasseen was attacked for encouraging or insinuating the possibility of normalization of relations between Israel and Iraq. “There are objective and timely reasons that call for the resumption of relations with Israel,” Yasseen said, stressing the total absence of such relations and the legal position of zero-tolerance towards normalization.
Yasseen’s norm-defiant stance shocked and angered members of the Iraqi parliament, some calling on Baghdad to summon the envoy and others calling for his immediate resignation. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry’s initial response was that reports had twisted the envoy’s words televised on Iraqi satellite station al-Iraqiya.
Few appear interested in the wider context to the remarks made — Israel’s sizable Iraqi diaspora who “cherish and practice local customs and traditions,” the ambassador said. While estimates vary, an estimated 200,000 Israeli citizens are thought to be of Iraqi Jewish descent.
“There are no relations to the government of Israel but that does not imply we are not in contact with the diaspora inside Israel,” Yasseen said. “I was asked in 2005 if Iraq intends to normalize its relations with Israel to which I said no such proposal was ever presented or debated, not even on the agenda or in our thinking.”
Yet these sympathies do not appear to chime with the Iraqi public.
Iraq’s National Penal Code of 1969 states that allegiance towards Zionism or material assistance to its proponents or institutions are acts “punishable by death.”
Deputy Chairman of Iraq’s parliamentary Legislative Committee Mohamad al Ghazi urged Yasseen “to clarify remarks made in an official statement.” Saairun-affiliated parliamentarian Ghaib al-Amiri told Al Jazeera that “his position is unanimously rejected and it does not represent the Iraqi people or government — merely his [Yasseen’s] own position.”
The fact of the matter is an official policy whose boundaries are fixed and that no Iraqi administration has openly resisted. However, at an individual level, it appears normalization is being advocated and is no longer the mirage it once was.
Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi and former Iraqi translator turned Miss Iraq Sarah Idan are proponents of normalization and are not alone. Former Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari was one of the first ministers to voice preference of upturning a policy that stood in the way of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, Elaph reported.
In July 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that “Israelis will soon be able to invest in Iraq, export and import products and services.” Yet time and again there have been attempts to put such suspicions to bed by officials citing the official rule of thumb. Evidence of warming relations exists, despite sharp disagreements over the normalization of ties with Israel.
Masoud Barzani, former president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, laid a finger on the contradictions in 2007, saying: “There will be no relations between the Kurdistan region and Israel if there are no diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel.” He said “there is no reason to keep such relations a secret” if they are established.
Warming relations between Israel and Kurdish political components were noted as far back as the 1960s and are widely viewed as a prelude to normalization with Israel. Kurdish commandos have accompanied Israeli operatives along the border northern Iraq shares with Iran.
Iraqi public opinion remains cautious as the Yasseen diplomatic storm demonstrates. As for the current government, Yasseen claimed that Baghdad remains stuck “on the same position that Arab states adopted 30 years ago.”
Consensus in Iraq is firmly aligned with the Palestinian struggle, as shown by demonstrations led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters outside the Bahraini Consulate against the Jared Kushner-led Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain. Positions in the Gulf are changing and Arab consensus is not the same it was 50 years ago.
Iraqi consensus, however, is staying firmly put while the wider region contemplates the question of normalization and a soft approach towards Israel.