Last week, over 300 Iraqi leaders called for the Iraqi government to normalize ties with Israel. However, the federal government quickly lashed out, condemning the leaders and their desire to establish relations with Iraq’s long-standing foe. As an increasing number of Arab nations normalize relations with Israel, internal pressure for Iraq to follow suit may grow. 

On September 24, over 300 prominent figures in Iraqi society attended a conference organized by the Center for Peace Communications (CPC), a U.S.-based think tank dedicated to fostering peace and cooperation between Israel and Arab countries. The conference was held in the autonomous region of Kurdistan and was attended by tribal leaders, intellectuals, and writers from across the country. During the meeting, attendees called on the Iraqi government to normalize relations, marking the first time prominent Iraqis have advocated for peace with Israel since the 1980s. 

In the 1900s, Iraq and Israel shared strong relations for 30 years. However, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the two nations became rivals. Today, some Iraqi Kurds engage with Israel occasionally. Indeed, some Kurdish leaders have visited Israel over the past decade, and Israel supported a 2017 independence referendum in autonomous Kurdistan. While relations between Kurdistan and Israel remain friendly, the Iraqi federal government views the only democracy in the Middle East with distrust and hatred. Israel has also demonstrated skepticism around Iraq’s regional affairs. In particular, the Israeli government is wary of Iran’s, its greatest foe, expansion within Iraq via its proxy, Kata’ib Hezbollah. Despite such hostilities, Israel responded positively to the call for normalization, with Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of Israel, stating that the nation extends its hand out in peace. 

After the conference, the Iraqi government quickly condemned the calls for normalization, claiming the event was an “illegal meeting” of “traitors” who did not represent the country’s general opinion. Iraq’s President, Barham Saleh, who is a Kurd, also condemned the forum. However, some officials have pushed back, claiming that normalization is critical for the country’s future. For example, Sahar Karim al-Ta’i, a senior official in Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, stated that Iraq now has a ripe opportunity to follow in the footsteps of other Arab nations and prioritize peace. Last year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan agreed to normalize ties with Israel as part of a process facilitated by the United States and former U.S. President Donald Trump. Al-Ta’i also discussed how repressive Iraq has become and criticized the government for censoring personal freedoms, including freedom of expression. 

As experts noted, the normalization of relations with Israel can confer numerous benefits to Arab nations, particularly those seeking to escape endless cycles of conflict, poverty, and underdevelopment. Thus far, countries that have established formal ties with Israel have explored trade deals and other economic partnerships, demonstrating the wide range of opportunities that could arise if Iraq pursued a similar agreement. Additionally, it is also believed that Israel could help promote democratic values across the region through normalization. This could be particularly beneficial for Iraq, as the country has struggled with political instability and chaos for many years. 

Across the Arab world, nations are mulling over normalizing relations with their long-standing foe, Israel. Recently, prominent Iraqi-Kurdish leaders have pressed the federal government to establish formal ties with the Jewish nation, though this has been met with backlash. Indeed, Iraq could benefit significantly if it agreed to normalize relations with Israel. However, given the two nations’ history of hostility, normalization efforts could be an uphill battle. 

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