A pro-Israel summit in Erbil breaks new ground

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On September 24, a remarkable event took place in Iraq. In the city of Erbil, in the north of the country, 312 Iraqis gathered – mainly Sunnis but also Shiites, towns and villages from all over the country – to ask their country to enter into relations with Israel and its people through the Abrahamic accords, and they did. while risking the wrath of Iran and its military proxies.

The participants were religious leaders, young demonstrators and university professors. One of the conference leaders was Sunni Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan. Its Sahwa (Awakening) movement is made up of members of Sunni tribes who, with the support of American forces, confronted Islamic states and al-Qaeda on the battlefield. This is the story the Sheikh referred to when he said at the conference: “We have demonstrated over the years with blood and tears that we oppose extremists of all kinds, that they are act of Sunni “jihadists” or Shiite militias supported by Iran.

“We have also demonstrated our patriotism,” continued Hardan. “We sacrificed lives for the sake of a united Iraq and our common aspiration to achieve a system of federal government as stipulated in our nation’s constitution. He now seeks to promote an Iraq that builds coexistence at the national and regional level. For conference attendees, this requires reaching out to Israelis whose families are from Iraq.

On September 24, a remarkable event took place in Iraq. In the city of Erbil, in the north of the country, 312 Iraqis gathered – mainly Sunnis but also Shiites, towns and villages from all over the country – to ask their country to enter into relations with Israel and its people through the Abrahamic accords, and they did. while risking the wrath of Iran and its military proxies.

The participants were religious leaders, young demonstrators and university professors. One of the conference leaders was Sunni Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan. Its Sahwa (Awakening) movement is made up of members of Sunni tribes who, with the support of American forces, confronted Islamic states and al-Qaeda on the battlefield. This is the story the Sheikh referred to when he said at the conference: “We have demonstrated over the years with blood and tears that we oppose extremists of all kinds, that we act of Sunni “jihadists” or Shiite militias supported by Iran.

“We have also demonstrated our patriotism,” continued Hardan. “We sacrificed lives for the sake of a united Iraq and our common aspiration to achieve a system of federal government as stipulated in our nation’s constitution. He now seeks to promote an Iraq that builds coexistence at the national and regional level. For conference attendees, this requires reaching out to Israelis whose families are from Iraq.

On the eve of World War II, Jews made up about a third of Baghdad’s population and were leaders in science, finance, and culture. Reconnecting with the Jews who were forced to leave Iraq at the time of Israel’s founding, Hardan, Major General Amer al-Juburi (a prominent member of the Shiite wing of the Juburi clan), the head of culture Sahar Karim al-Tai, and the other participants proclaimed their hope, as Tai said in his speech, to “lay the cornerstone of the future of a new Iraq, a country where people of all sects, denominations and beliefs will benefit from the benefits of justice and equality ”. They see the peace and the Abrahamic Agreements – the stated policy of the Biden administration in the United States – as creating a way for the future they want to build.

Conference attendees are now subject to backlash, ranging from Hardan’s suspension from the Awakening movement to more direct threats from Iran-backed Shiite militias. These militias are demanding hard actions against the “American Zionist dens” and the “traitorous” participants in Erbil. Politicians who don’t want to be on the wrong side of Iranians are support arrests. The Iranians and their proxies produce forced retractions in which some of the participants are forced to admit their alleged mistakes.

As important as it was for the conference participants to make a declaration on peace with Israel, they also advanced the cause of free speech for all Iraqis. They accept that others do not agree with them, but for Iraq to progress, diverse opinions must be able to be expressed. Calls for the arrest of participants are a chilling reminder of the limits of expression in Iraq – again, a sign of the influence Iran continues to wield, but also an indication that Iran fears the message from Erbil’s lecture. Nothing could be more threatening to anything Iran seeks in Iraq and the region than the expansion of peace, especially if it comes from below.

Conference attendees are now looking to create follow-up working groups with Israeli civil society groups, starting with the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, as well as journalists and academics. I have worked for decades to promote Arab-Israeli peace, including as an American envoy to the Middle East, and I know that if governments can help end conflicts and legitimize peacemaking, it is the people who make peace. Leaders can call for reconciliation, but its achievement can only come from the bottom up and not from the top down.

So how did this unprecedented event organized by civil society come about? The organizer of the field event is a small American non-governmental organization, the Center for Peace Communications, led by its founder and president, Joseph Braude, with a mission to foster people-to-people links between Arabs and Israelis. (Full disclosure: I chair the board of directors of this small nonprofit organization.) Braude’s family is from Iraq and his great-great-grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad. Like so many members of Baghdad’s Jewish community, in 1950 his grandparents lost all their property and assets, their Iraqi citizenship was revoked, and their documents stamped “Forbidden to Return to Iraq.” They traveled to Israel, where some of the family remained and others, including their grandson Joseph, moved to the United States.

The goal of the Center for Peace Communications is to promote connections between the peoples and cultures of the Middle East, not governments. Erbil’s lecture grew out of what Braude likes to call “expeditionary diplomacy”. The representative of the Center for Peace Communications in Iraq facilitated an extensive public awareness campaign, including with members of the Awakening movement and the Juburi clan, on behalf of the effort. Braude, Hardan, and the tribal elders talked about the general principles and the idea of ​​having a meeting to act on those principles. They worked together to produce a document that will be released at the conference. Hardan and his counterparts in a total of six governorates – Baghdad, Nineveh, Babil, Salahuddin and Diyala, in addition to his Anbar governorate – joined in the development and participation in the conference, and in the conceptualization of the meetings of the followed up with the Israelis. (Several tribes among them, most notably the Juburis, have both Sunni and Shiite wings.) This tribal base was in turn joined by actors from the urban youth protest movements of 2019-2021 (the so-called October Revolution) and intellectuals.

Everyone who attended the conference clearly has a vision for the future. This very much reflects what they heard at the conference of the son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Chemi Peres, president of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Via video, he addressed the assembly and spoke about common projects they could launch to improve the lives of all in the Middle East. Conference attendees know that there are now two different paths for the region. One is embodied in the Abrahamic Accords and proposes a development; digital-based economies; scientific progress; food, water and health security; and a future where lives are improved and people live in safety and peace. Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates are examples of this path. The other way offers continuous conflict. It is married not to progress but to “resistance”, ensuring failing and failing states where, as in Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, the basic needs of the people are sacrificed for the sake of those who hold power and use an ideology of rejection to preserve this. It is a path that perpetuates the past and secures a future uniquely of conflict, despair and despair.

The participants in Erbil’s conference chose the first path. Yes, they will face threats from Iran and the Shiite militias. They don’t expect others to fight for them, but they count on America’s support, and they certainly deserve it.

If American interventions in the Middle East teach anything, it is that Americans cannot impose their values, remake societies or produce peace from outside. But the United States has a responsibility to support concretely and materially those who will stand up for themselves and embody the very values ​​that Americans believe.

Marking the anniversary of the Abrahamic Accords earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We want to expand the circle of peaceful diplomacy because it is in the interest of countries in the region… let Israel be treated like any other country. ”The Erbil conference attendees are acting on the secretary’s words, and the United States has a stake in their survival and success.


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