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Iraqi politicians see 'fake news' in controversial Israeli tweet

A Twitter account run by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that several Iraqi delegations had visited Israel in 2018, prompting controversy among Iraqi politicians, who branded the tweet as fake news.

Israel in Arabic, a Twitter account run by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted Jan. 6 that several Iraqi delegations had visited Israel in 2018, meeting with Israeli officials and touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry promptly denied having knowledge of any such visits.

Iraq's parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi called Jan. 10 for the formation of a committee to investigate Israel's claims. Meanwhile, an Israeli author and commentator, Edy Cohen, claimed to have received a list of those Iraqis who visited Israel. All the Iraqis on this alleged list denied having traveled to Israel. Former member of parliament Ahmed Jarba told the media that the false report that he had visited Israel “seeks to tarnish [his] image.”

Alia Nassif, a member of parliament for the State of Law Coalition, said that the visits did not happen. “The news is fake and lacks evidence,” she told Al-Monitor. “There are political motives behind the news that seek to misrepresent my parliamentary role.” She speculated that a Kuwaiti journalist, Fajar Saeed, "who who calls for normalization with Israel, is probably behind mentioning my name, because of my standings toward Kuwaiti ambitions for Iraqi oil and territory.” 

The debate over the tweet has escalated throughout the past several weeks, as Iraq's ties with Israel have been thrown into question. The Iraqi government has not recognized the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948. Yet, during a Jan. 3 press conference, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim stated that Iraq is in favor of the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian crisis. This remark implied the recognition of the state of Israel, and was behind the State of Law Coalition's Jan. 5 demand to take strict action against him. Khalaf Abdul Samad, the head of the State of Law Coalition in parliament, told the press Jan. 5 that “Hakim’s remarks neither represent the Iraqi people nor the political forces.”

In parallel, Israeli officials are focusing on Iraq, particularly on Iranian influence in the country. The Israeli minister of interior suggested in October 2018 that "Iraq may serve as an Iranian military base to attack Israel." In May 2018, the Israeli Foreign Ministry launched the Israel in Iraqi Dialect Facebook page. But the rumor of Iraqi delegations visiting Israel has prompted a whole new level of debate.

Furat al-Tamimi, a member of the Iraqi parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, disputed whether the visit actually happened, and said, “The news on the visit is a part of a media campaign to normalize [ties] with Tel Aviv."

She told Al-Monitor, “The objective is to cause division among the political forces, as well as political and social befuddlement. This is because relations with Israel are a very sensitive topic for the Iraqis, particularly for Muslims.”

Palestinian ambassador to Iraq, Ahmad Aqil, also denied that the visits ever took place, suggesting that “an Israeli e-army fabricated [the news] to deepen the rift in the Iraqi community.”

Atheel Nujaifi, a leader of the Iraqi Decision Alliance, warned that any Israeli interference “in the country’s internal affairs would divide [Iraq].”

Israel’s Maariv newspaper reported in September 2008 that Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi called for “building relations with Israel” at the Herzliya Conference. Alusi told Al-Monitor that engaging in "a dialogue with a country that has political and military powers and that exists on the map is what the calls to make contacts with Israel are made for."

“A dialogue [with Israel] will not cause damage to Iraq," he said. "Rather, it will open the horizon for stability in the Middle East as a whole.”

“The Iraqi people have gotten sick of wars," he continued. "My call seeks to bring about peace.”

In August 2017, the spokesman for Ninevah's Arab tribes, Muzahim al-Howeit, called for “normalization of ties with Tel Aviv,” arguing that such a move was in Iraqis' interests.

In an email statement, the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Al-Monitor that “Iraq supports the return of the Palestinian land that Israel seized.” Furthermore, the Iraqi stance regarding recognition of Israel, "is based on the 2002 Arab initiative, which Iraq has espoused since the Saddam Hussein era. So far, said position has remained unchanged.”

Ali al-Tamimi, a former judge and legal expert, told Al-Monitor, “The Iraqi penal code issues the death penalty to whoever promotes Israeli principles or assists [Israel] materially and morally. It also criminalizes whoever visits Israel, [as it is] an act of treason and collaboration.”

Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin, a Jewish journalist of Iraqi origin residing in Israel, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The Iraqis with whom I communicate on social media would like to visit Israel.”

The forces of the Resistance Axis, who have close ties to Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, are the most vocal opponents of normalizing ties with Israel. In December 2017, Asaib Ahl al-Haq's secretary-general, Qais al-Khazali, visited with Hezbollah Lebanon's border with Israel. Naim al-Abboudi, a member of parliament for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told Al-Monitor, “The normalization of ties with Israel is a red line. It is absolutely unacceptable for the Iraqi state and people.”

Nevertheless, the Israelis continue to seek a breakthrough, as happened with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where normalization is proceeding and an alliance against Iran is forming.

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