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Missing the zeitgeist: Iraq legislates anti-Israel bigotry

Baghdad’s move to legislate anti-Israel and antisemitic prejudice holds onto a hateful and archaic past that refuses to see the light of normalizing ties with Israel
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on May 26, 2022, to celebrate the passing of a bill that criminalizes normalization of ties with Israel. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on May 26, 2022, to celebrate the passing of a bill that criminalizes normalization of ties with Israel. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

The Iraqi parliament passed a bill on May 26 criminalizing all relations with Israel. The 275 lawmakers of the 329-seat Council of Representatives who attended the vote unanimously supported the law, “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity,” whose violation is punishable with the death sentence or life imprisonment. The same day, the US Department of State called out the law for “promoting an environment of antisemitism.”

Baghdad’s move to legislate anti-Israel and antisemitic bigotry poses a stark contrast to the visionary steps four Arab states – Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates – have taken since 2020 to normalize relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords. It is unfortunate that Iraqi legislators, instead of joining other Arab neighbors in building a future of peaceful coexistence, have chosen to embrace those sticking to intransigent and hateful approaches towards Israel and Israelis, led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made this very clear when he said, “The passing of the law to forbid the normalization of relations with the Zionist regime in the Iraqi parliament was a right move,” in his May 29 call with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Of course, while this Iraq bill seems out of step with the current zeitgeist of regional cooperation, it is only the latest iteration of decades-long attempts by political gatekeepers to hinder cordial relations between their peoples and Israel’s diverse citizenry. Anti-normalization efforts even preceded the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, with the Arab League declaring an economic boycott of the Jewish entities in Mandate-era Palestine, gaining significant momentum in the 1950s. At a time when any interaction between Arabs and Israelis was verboten, this commitment to restrict diplomatic, economic or cultural engagement with Israel, or even to bar people from sympathizing with Israel or Zionism, was formally made into laws in many countries across the region.

Lebanon’s 1955 Israel boycott law and 1963 regulation establishing the Israel Boycott Office purportedly aim to block “any attempt from the Israeli enemy to access our market by any fraud, forgery or smuggling means.” In 1964, Kuwait’s National Assembly approved the “unified law to boycott Israel” on the heels of a 1957 decree, which had imposed penalties on those who “financially deal with Israel.” Article 201 of Iraq’s 1969 penal code stipulated the death penalty for a person “who promotes or acclaims Zionist principles including freemasonry or who associates himself with, Zionist organizations or assists them by giving material or moral support or works in any way towards the realization of Zionist objectives” until the law’s suspension by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. Egypt’s 1975 citizenship law stipulated “stripping the Egyptian nationality of anyone” if “at any time he has been qualified as zionist.”

Such targeting of relations with Israel and Israelis picked up steam in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. In 2021, the Tunisian parliament asked the Freedom, Rights, and Foreign Relations Committee to examine a bill criminalizing the normalization of relations with Israel, an initiative which continues to find support from different factions. Last month, Algeria’s Islamist opposition bloc submitted a bill aiming to “criminalize normalization with the Zionist entity” as well as banning any contacts with Israel or traveling to and from Israel.

These political stunts driven by antisemitic and anti-Israel bigotry have proven to be ineffective in preventing Arab states and peoples from reaching out to Israel and embracing peaceful coexistence. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, cordial relations started to spill over from the diplomatic arena to the economic domain, including a milestone free trade deal Israel and the UAE signed on May 31, as well as to robust people-to-people ties. Within a year of the Accords, over quarter million Israelis visited the UAE, and there have been numerous reports of the flourishing of Jewish public life in the Gulf countries since then.

In fact, the momentum goes beyond the Abraham Accord partners. “Apart from Syria and Lebanon, there is no other Arab country we’re not engaging with and which is not engaging with us,” said Eliav Benjamin, the Israeli foreign ministry’s Middle East department director, in January. The ministry’s “Israel Speaks Arabic” Facebook page and Twitter handle established in 2011 have nearly four million followers and the “Israel in Iraqi Dialect” Facebook page created in 2018 exceeds half a million followers.

Such warming of people-to-people ties threatens the politics of hate and extremism pushed by Tehran and its Iraqi proxies. Last September, when 312 Iraqi Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, called for normalization with Israel at a conference in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, it not only drew Baghdad’s condemnation but also led to threats of arrest or death.

What is more worrying for the anti-normalization bloc is that the Abraham Accords momentum goes beyond the region’s Arabs. For years, Iraqi Kurds have pursued cordial political and economic relations with their Israeli counterparts, reaping benefits as evidenced by the relative economic prosperity and security of the Iraqi Kurdistan compared to the rest of the country. Besides trying to reign in the Iraqi Arabs’ curiosity toward Israel, Thursday’s bill criminalizing contact with Israel also targets the deepening relations of Iraqi Kurds with Israelis.

Even Turkey, a country that initially joined Iran in condemning the Abraham Accords and threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE, has since reached out to both the UAE and Israel, through diplomatic visits at the highest level. At a time when Ankara has begun to see the diplomatic, economic, and security dividends of joining the Abraham Accords bandwagon, Baghdad’s shortsightedness is particularly damaging to Iraq’s national interests as well as to the prosperity of the country’s citizens.

The State Department’s immediate condemnation of the Iraqi anti-normalization law for “promoting an environment of antisemitism” was the right call. The bipartisan Abraham Accords Congressional Caucus launched in January should intensify its efforts promote normalization together with the Israeli caucus established last October. The latest developments also show that the bipartisan bill, Strengthening Reporting of Actions Taken Against the Normalization of Relations with Israel Act of 2020, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rob Portman (R-OH),  is timelier than ever. Attempts to legislate anti-Israel and antisemitic bigotry should strengthen US and Middle Eastern resolve to promote understanding and peaceful coexistence.

Before the Abraham Accords, when basically the entire Arab world was boycotting Israel, the likes of Iraq’s anti-normalization bill would not have stood out. But at a time when more and more Arab states are normalizing ties with Israel, Baghdad’s joining of Tehran’s bandwagon is not in step with current realities and misses the zeitgeist.

This piece was co-authored by Aykan Erdemir. He is the Director of International Affairs Research at the Anti-Defamation League.

About the Author
Sharon Nazarian is Senior Vice President, International Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League
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