Nearly 20 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in a U.S.-led invasion, Iraq remains at war with Israel, as has been the situation since the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. The question persists, however, as to whether Iraq will always be at war with Israel.
Ask the Iraqi parliament that question and you will receive an affirmative answer. Last Thursday, Iraqi legislators voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new law with the ominous title, “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations With the Zionist Entity.” From now on, any Iraqi citizen who makes contact with anyone or anything originating from Israel could well face a lifetime prison sentence or even the death penalty.
In a statement issued following the bill’s passage, the Iraqi parliament declared that the legislation “represents a true reflection of the will of the people, a brave national decision and a position that is the first of its kind in the world in terms of criminalizing the relationship with the Zionist entity.” It called on parliaments elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds to follow the Iraqi lead by passing similar legislation that “meets the aspirations of our people.”
Given the Middle East’s history of corruption, dictatorships, human-rights abuse and rigged elections, it is grimly amusing to learn that the aspirations of its constituent peoples are held sacred when it comes to confronting Israel. But does that aspiration really exist, or is it something manufactured from above?
Blaming Israel for domestic woes has long been a tactic of Middle Eastern regimes to divert attention from their failure to lift their nations out of poverty, provide jobs and education, and modernize their societies. It is a tactic held in esteem by much of the Western left, which also believes that Israel’s presence is the only stumbling block to peace and justice for the region. Yet that isn’t a view shared by the demonstrators who have taken to the streets of Iran once again, angered by soaring prices of basic goods but evolving, as has happened before, into political protests. One of their chants, which was first heard during the historic protests of 2009, declares, “Not for Gaza! Not for Lebanon! My life for Iran!”—a slogan that pithily exposes how official calls for solidarity with the Palestinians help to mask the misery of life on the inside.
The Iraqi legislation purposefully goes against the trend in the broader region for peace agreements with Israel. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all signed agreements with Israel towards the end of the 20th century; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan all signed up to peace treaties in the early part of the 21st, with the prospect that other Arab countries, among them Saudi Arabia, will still come into the fold. Iran and its allies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have been outliers in this regard in that not only do they shun relations with Israel, but they also seek to confront it in both official propaganda and through acts of terror and war.
On every such occasion, the message is the same: The destruction of Israel is the expression of the people’s will. But as one Middle East analyst pointed out to me, there is an absurdity about the Iraqi parliament invoking the “people’s will” on a subject like Israel—a subject utterly irrelevant to the daily grind of lives that will increasingly be governed by rising food prices and critical shortages—when it has failed to form a government a full nine months after elections were held.
It would be mistaken to view the Iraqi legislation as purely symbolic. As well as being directed at neighboring countries entertaining the idea of peace with Israel, it is aimed even more at those inside Iraq who have advocated for that same goal.
The law will apply to the whole of Iraq, including the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, which has long engaged with Israel. After the Kurdish bid for independence was crushed in 2017 by Iranian-backed paramilitaries, the Iraqi parliament passed legislation banning the display of “Zionist symbols” in a furious riposte to the many Kurds who brandished Israeli flags at pro-independence rallies. But the desire for contact with Israel remains; last September, a historic gathering was held in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, at which Sunni and Shia leaders urged peace with Israel.
The audience in Erbil heard a remarkable speech from Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, a leader of the Sunni Sons of Iraq movement. “We see a glimmer of hope in the ability of some Iraqi Jews to rehabilitate their lives and to preserve their traditions through the generations,” he said. “Most of them are still close to us, and we see them, as neighbors, in Israel. … We demand to establish a federal system in Iraq; and on the global front, we demand to join the Abraham Accords, and, in the words of those accords, to establish full diplomatic relations between the signatories and Israel.”
Not surprisingly, Iraq’s Islamist parties were livid when they saw the conference in Erbil. Just as predictably, al-Hardan was quickly hounded out of the Sons of Iraq movement, despite having issued what read as a forced apology: “I read the statement that was written for me without knowing its content. I denounce the content of the final statement and what was stated in it.” Less than a year later, the intention of the bill criminalizing contact with Israel is to end reconciliation efforts on the pain of death.
The Jews of Iraq mentioned in al-Hardan’s speech knew better than anyone the reality behind the threat of execution. In January 1969, nine Jews were among 14 alleged Israeli spies who were hanged in a public execution in Baghdad’s Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Almost 500,000 people came to witness this grotesque spectacle, having been urged by Iraqi radio to “come and enjoy the feast.” In August of the same year, three more Jews were executed for the same fabricated offense.
Reflecting on how the remnant of the once-proud Iraqi Jewish community was hounded by the Ba’ath regime, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya observed that the significance of their plight lay in the fact that “the persecution of every Iraqi under the Ba’ath began with that of the most helpless among them.” The Ba’ath is no longer in power, but the tendency identified by Makiya is very much alive. And, as has always been the case, those who will pay the greatest price for these lurid calls for Israel’s elimination are exactly those in whose name this shameful war is being waged.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.