OASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden landed July 13 at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel for his first visit as president and his 10th since 1973, he immediately raised the issue of integrating much of the Middle East in a single security system, to keep Iran at bay. .
However, prospects for an anti-Iranian alliance are clashing with Iraq, which has officially banned normalization with Israel – and made it punishable by death.
In May, the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly passed a law expanding Saddam Hussein-era restrictions on relations with Israel. The law applies to all interactions with Israeli officials on social media and interactions with organizations or companies that deal with Israel.
The very name, “Law Criminalizing Normalization with the Zionist Entity,” is a pointed rebuke to the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Iraqis who would comment on pro-Israel social media sites have fallen silent, and Iraqis who manage the properties of overseas Jews say they have been threatened by other Iraqis.
In 1969, an Iraqi law stipulated that if one belonged to a Zionist or Freemason institution, one risked being executed.
The law now criminalizes any relationship with Israel or with Israeli citizens, not just political or defense but also NGOs, charities and business relationships.
Yet, due to Iraq’s proximity to Iran and the longstanding US presence in the country, Iraq remains a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would implement a regional defense agreement that names Iraq, Israel and the United States among a set of 10 nations.
The office of Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from the bipartisan group, said that while Iraq’s law is regrettable, the country remains a vital part of US security in the region.
“It cannot go unnoticed that Iraq continues to be a valuable partner in the region for the United States and hosts U.S. military and foreign service officers who are regularly attacked by Iranian proxies operating in the country,” he said. said a spokesperson for Ernst.
“Iraq’s integration into a regional missile and drone defense framework makes sense for U.S. military security and provides a forum for further cooperation with Israel and against Iran.”
The bipartisan group, co-led by Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen, sounded the alarm over Israeli law in Iraq and called on Biden to push Iraq to roll back the law while he is in the region.
Biden wrote in a Washington Post prior to his trip, the integration of Israeli and Arab nations into defense and economic structures would be a priority.
“I will also be the first president to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This trip will also be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps towards normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand,” Biden wrote.
“In Jeddah, leaders from across the region will gather, underscoring the possibility of a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role.
White House officials did not respond when asked if Biden would address the anti-normalization law with Iraqi officials at the GCC+3 meeting.
There is evidence that Iraqi citizens are not as committed as their legislators to opposing Israel, especially in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where Israeli-Kurdish trade has quietly existed for years.
Last September, hundreds of Iraqi civic leaders and activists defied the threat of prosecution to attend a conference calling on the country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Center for Peace Communications — an American think tank that promotes Iraqi-Israeli recognition and is chaired by Dennis Ross, a former Middle East official — helped organize the event.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry Facebook page in the Iraqi Arabic dialect has 660,000 followers, up from nearly 800,000 since the law was passed. (Pro-Israel officials say many of those followers turned to a pan-Arab page, which put them in less danger.)
Tallal al-Hariri, who founded a pro-Israel Iraqi political party and has since fled into exile, says Iraqis are aware of the outsized role Iraqi Jews once played in the country and long for their return.
“A significant number of young people in particular want to see a reconnection with the Iraqi Jewish diaspora and peace with Israel,” he said.
The Center for Peace Communications advocates for international pressure on Iraqi lawmakers to reverse anti-normalization measures.
The think tank has in recent months focused its advocacy in particular on Mohammed Al-Halbousi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, who has been a staunch defender of the law, but who is also seen in the West as an ally in containing influence. Iranian in Iraq.
“Halbousi was instrumental in whipping up Sunni and tribal votes to ensure his swift passage,” Michael Nahum, the think tank’s chief operating officer, said in a Times of Israel op-ed.
“Employing demagogy and anti-Semitic language, he has gone far beyond anything that realpolitik could have justified his involvement in the law, and now wants to export it throughout the region.
One example was Halbousi’s appearance at a televised town hall last August, in which he pledged, “there will never be normalization with this usurping entity, ever!”
Speaking at a rally in October, he praised Saladin, the Muslim leader who rebuffed the Crusaders as “breaking the Zionists’ backs” and prayed for the day when “our armies will reach Israel”.
To those who preached normalization, he said, “I will cut off their manhood.
The failure to forcefully condemn Halbousi means that “Israel’s strongest supporters have acquiesced in his campaign against normalization and the many Arabs who want it,” Nahum wrote.
Halbousi is nonetheless seen in the West as a leader of Iraq’s large Sunni minority, which plays a key role in limiting Iran’s influence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Halbousi to congratulate him on his re-election as president in January.
Halbousi was due to travel to Washington last month but canceled due to political instability in his country.
During the Trump administration, he met with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
DAvid Schenker, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with ties to the US and Israeli governments as well as several Arab governments, said Halbousi was hardly an outlier in a country where the Iran retains enormous influence – and poses a deadly threat to anyone who hints at accommodation with Israel.
Israeli officials say they are counting on the long term: the momentum generated by a regional defense deal could eventually transform Iraq, they say.
Schenker, who served as assistant secretary of state responsible for the Middle East during the Trump administration, said there were positive signs in Iraq, including its engagement with U.S. allies such as Egypt and Jordan, and its goal of defusing tensions between Saudi Arabia. and Iran.
But, he added, “you have a central government that cannot exercise sovereignty” in the face of the country’s various political factions and Iranian influence. Plans to integrate Iraq into the regional defense architecture are premature, he said.