The Abraham Accords proponents have launched a wave of unprecedented diplomatic activity in the Middle East, breaking the Palestinian statehood taboo – that it would be unthinkable to recognize Israel until the formation of a Palestinian state.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and two Gulf countries – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – has come as a result of a long process, which intensified in recent years. But it will also act as a catalyst for social and political discord; another tool of divide et impera (divide and conquer) in Arab states that have already experienced deep divisions; especially those closely linked to Iran, which along with Erdogan’s Turkey have remained the last bastions of support for the Palestinian cause.
Governments will see normalization with Israel as a medicine to cure longstanding economic problems and a tool to quell rising social unrest.
Governments will see normalization with Israel as a medicine to cure longstanding economic problems and, therefore, as a tool to quell rising social unrest. As for the United States, wider regional recognition of Israel opens long-term strategic possibilities. Iraq, which needs investments and funds to offset sharply lower oil revenues and rising social discontent, could be “bribed” into following in the footsteps of Bahrain and the UAE, affecting the future of Iran-Iraq relations in Washington’s direction. Iran would be left more isolated. And Washington would direct such a process, justifying it as part of a greater strategy to contain China’s rise across the Indo-Pacific.
This is the path that the Middle East may now be on; and a normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel would accelerate the process. Over the last few years, many efforts have been made to establish links between the two countries. In 2019, three Iraqi delegations of 15 political and religious figures, from both Sunni and Shiite communities, visited Israel, meeting with Jewish government officials and academics. Iraqis also visited the Holocaust Memorial.
The leader of Iraq’s secular Umma Party, Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni, wants Iraq to follow the UAE’s example by establishing diplomatic ties with Israel and has long argued in favor of normalizing relations with Tel Aviv. Al-Alusi is reaching out to Israel, calling on Baghdad to make peace with its eternal enemy. He believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exploited by several states for their own interests rather than for the benefit of the Palestinian people.
Mithal al-Alusi noted that Iraqi leaders had already been in contact with the Israelis, even as they remain wary of Iranian influence. Iraq does not recognize Israel and, as a result, the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. Moreover, Baghdad declared war on the Jewish state in 1948, and since then the two countries have technically been at war. Iraqi forces participated in battles against Israel in 1967 and 1973, and during the Persian Gulf War (1990-91); Iraq fired a few dozen SCUD ballistic missiles against Israel.
Would the Iraqi People Benefit?
For now, it is clear that a future normalization of Israeli-Iraqi relations would first have a direct benefit for the United States. The Pentagon just announced that it has started to reduce the number of troops in Baghdad from 5,200 to 3,000. It might seem like a tactic to win votes in Trump’s electoral agenda, as the President promised to stop the “endless wars in Iraq,” but it has far deeper implications.
At a more geopolitical level, the United States can use the prospect of normalization with Israel to leave the area, reducing its military involvement while still pursuing the strategic goal of breaking Iranian—and, to a lesser extent, Turkish—influence in the region. It is a tool that will be most lethal in Iraq and Lebanon.
Normalization might be understood as “the end of history,” to use Francis Fukuyama’s words. After all, it wasn’t American weapons that broke the “Iron Curtain” and the Soviet Union. The normalization process of Glasnost and Perestroika did. The era of Arab-Israeli confrontation will continue, culminating perhaps in a political upheaval in Iran. Of course, Fukuyama himself acknowledged that his analysis of the outcome of the Cold War may have been too optimistic. And for Iraq, the situation is particularly complex.
Four months after taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi faces considerable political pressure, having to manage multiple internal crises and now even more delicate foreign relations, with the added temptation of obtaining economic relief in exchange for “betraying” the Palestinians.
In a mandate that expires in June 2021, when the next elections will be held, al-Khadimi must confront the protracted COVID-19 crisis amid a dire economic situation, marked by lack of liquidity and the collapse of the crude oil market. There is growing popular dissent over rising unemployment (youth unemployment is estimated at 36 percent) and the violence of the Iraqi security forces towards popular protests. The country is facing one of the worst financial crises since 2003 – when the US invaded it, destroying much of its infrastructure. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that Iraq’s economy will contract by almost five percent in 2020.
Iraq is facing one of the worst financial crises since 2003 – when the US invaded it, destroying much of its infrastructure.
With an economic structure that derives more than 92 percent of its annual income from oil exports, Iraq finds itself without financial resources to offset the drop in oil prices and the lower demand (not to mention the fact that Baghdad agreed to reduce oil production in the context of OPEC). The combination of health and economic fragility exacerbate discontent and fuel social unrest in the country. The UN says that poverty has worsened in 2020 compared to 2019, such that a third of the Iraqi population now lives below the poverty threshold.
Prospects for Iraq look worse than they did a year ago, when massive anti-government protests erupted on October 1, 2019, as young people complained about unemployment and rampant corruption, calling for radical political changes. One of the main demands was an end to foreign interference – not just American, but also Iranian. The government and various affiliated militias repressed the demonstrations, said to have left over 500 dead in the related violence.
A year later, conditions have not changed. If the protests have dwindled, it’s more because of the overall restrictions and fears related to the pandemic rather than any of the demonstrators’ requests having been met. The only grievance that al-Khadimi (a former head of intelligence) has addressed is to investigate the attacks on protesters in 2019. There was little else he could do.
Indeed, despite good intentions, even al-Khadimi’s professed mission of safeguarding Iraq’s sovereignty, by strengthening the rule of law and preventing others from using the country as a battlefield for proxy wars, rests on weak foundations, given the regional framework.
In the current circumstances, it seems unrealistic to expect any significant economic, political, or security reforms. Al-Kadhimi lacks the political base, the tools, and the time (if not the ability) to address the multiple crises facing Iraq and implement structural changes, let alone normalize relations with Israel. Nonetheless, the conditions exist for his government to examine the issue seriously, even if his successors might be the ones to take the gamble.
Moreover, al-Khadimi has indicated an interest in exploring new alliances with a view toward pragmatism both internationally (strengthening ties to the US and EU powers such as France) and regionally, while avoiding any flare-ups with Iran. Presumably, the strategy will focus on better balancing the country amid the tensions between the United States and Iran – which exacerbated at the beginning of 2020 with the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani.
Washington’s Game and the Isolation of Iran
As Washington and Baghdad have engaged in a series of bilateral talks (in June and August) to seek solutions to increase stability, it will not have been lost on al-Khadimi that at the same time two Arab countries signed a diplomatic agreement with Israel. At the official level, Iraq’s foreign affairs ministry reiterated its rejection of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and that it remains committed to the principle of boycott.
But, Kurdistan (i.e. Erbil) already enjoys warm relations with Tel Aviv; and while Saudi Arabia has not formally extended a diplomatic overture to the Jewish State, it has made it clear that the season of outright hostility is over. In the longer term, there will be increasing socio-economic and geopolitical pressure even for states such as Iraq to seek an “accommodation.” This is also because Iran itself is facing increasing domestic pressure to alter its regional policy in favor of practical solutions to rising socio-economic difficulties.
The US has led the destruction of the very Arab nationalist governments that mobilized and led the anti-Israeli front while advancing the Palestinian cause.
The Middle East has entered a transformation phase. The United States has led the destruction of the very Arab nationalist governments (Baathist in the case of Syria and Iraq, and Nasserist in the case of Libya and Egypt) that mobilized and led the anti-Israeli front while advancing the Palestinian cause. Now, that front can only count on the Palestinians themselves (though they remain divided), and the very groups in the Middle East that are under pressure through sanctions and boycotts: the Iranian government (not necessarily the people), Hezbollah in Lebanon (itself under pressure to normalize relations with Israel), Qatar, and Turkey.
Still, the pragmatic plans must contend with well rooted and popular ideological objections. President Trump’s decision to order the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport in January triggered a firestorm in Iraq. Many Iraqi lawmakers have called for the expulsion of US troops. Iranian-backed militias have launched a small-scale rocket and bomb attack campaign against the US Embassy and Iraqi military bases that house US-led coalition troops.
In this context, there’s still a large component of Iraqi public opinion that feels humiliated by American leaders. Many Iraqis continue to claim the chaos, financial corruption, and instability in Iraq is a direct result of the US invasion and occupation. Before any normalization with Israel – which Washington would evidently encourage – many Iraqis would want the US to pay trillions of dollars in compensation. The United States might even link the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq (and the Middle East for that matter) with the normalization of Iraqi-Israeli relations.