New Chance to Build Israel-Iraq Ties

As the United States begins rebuilding Iraq, pro-Israel activists are watching closely, seeing an opportunity for the Jewish state to improve ties with another Arab neighbor.

Much of that hope has been placed in the hands of Ahmed Chalabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) opposition group, who has forged strong ties with the White House and the Pentagon in recent years — and has built a strong following in the American Jewish community.

"There’s no track record of anyone else in Iraqi leadership having a relationship with the Jewish community," said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

Chalabi’s group has been assigned to help U.S. troops impose order in Baghdad — a sign, some argue, that the INC is favored to play a large role in any interim government the United States forms in Iraq. However, the INC is not universally liked within the Bush administration. Reports stress that the State Department and the CIA are concerned about the INC’s lack of popular support in Iraq.

The Jewish Institute and other Jewish organizations met with Chalabi and other INC leaders last fall, part of the Jewish community’s effort to strengthen Israel’s relations with the Arab world. While the Bush administration was preparing at the time to overthrow the regime in Baghdad, both the INC and Jewish groups said they had something to gain from a strong bond.

The INC saw improved relations as a way to tap Jewish influence in Washington and Jerusalem and to drum up increased support for its cause. For their part, the Jewish groups saw an opportunity to pave the way for better relations between Israel and Iraq, if and when the INC is involved in replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime.

"Because Saddam was so anti-Israel, the hope is that all of Saddam’s policies will be revisited, including his relationship with Israel and the United States," Neumann said. "There’s no reason for the Iraqi people to have a problem with Israel."

The INC’s relationship with JINSA also is significant because Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who has been assigned to lead the U.S. reconstruction of Iraq, has traveled with JINSA and supported the organization’s agenda.

While JINSA has had a relationship with Chalabi for 10 years, according to Neumann, other Jewish groups are supporting him publicly for the first time. Yet some observers worry that a public relationship could work against the interests of Jewish groups and the Iraqi opposition.

Michael Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, said Jewish groups might run into problems by working only with Chalabi and Entifadh Qanbar, director of the INC’s Washington office, because the organization does not have strong support in Iraq, where there are numerous opposition groups.

Perceived Jewish support for Chalabi could "drive a wedge between Chalabi and other forces in the Iraqi opposition," said Amitay, whose father, Morris Amitay, is vice chairman of JINSA’s board of directors. Calling the Jewish approach "shortsighted," Michael Amitay said it would be "much more helpful if Jewish groups reached out to other groups, such as the Kurds," as well.

Qanbar disputed that claim. He said Jewish groups have been among the first to form an alliance with the INC, because they realize support for the organization is growing within the Bush administration.

"Jewish groups have a strong understanding of American politics," he said. "It’s an indication that there is a new phase of policy."

Some also worry that Chalabi’s good words won’t translate into a pro-Israel foreign policy. Pressure to garner support from inside Iraq and the rest of the Arab world could force the INC to abandon its pro-Israel position.

In addition, the Bush administration’s appointment of a military leader and encouragement of a dissident group with ties to Israel has played into conspiracy theories in the Arab world that the United States went to war in Iraq for Israel’s benefit — perhaps constraining the next Iraqi government’s latitude to approach Israel.

"It’s far too early to even speculate where any of them will be and what their positions will be," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "It never works out the way people think it is going to work out."

The INC was founded shortly after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, combining several smaller opposition forces within Iraq. It is based in Salahuddin in northern Iraq and has its external base in London. The group operates a newspaper, television station, regional offices and a center for humanitarian relief.

The United States has given the INC more than $26 million during the past three years. American aid to the group was suspended in January, because of INC’s alleged mismanagement of funds, but was resumed a month later.

Qanbar said he believes good relations with Israel are possible under a new regime, because Saddam was the one who had a problem with Israel, not the Iraqi people.