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Behind the Headlines; in Secret, Israel and Iraq Fostered Ties in Mid-1980s

February 8, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Some time back in the mid-1980s, discreet contacts between Jerusalem and Baghdad were established through Washington, the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir recalls in its latest issue.

Nizar Hamdoun, Iraqi ambassador to the United States at the time, was cultivating American Jews. The so-called “Iraqi option” was in vogue in certain political circles in Israel.

They saw Saddam Hussein as leaning toward the moderate Arab camp and certainly preferable to the fanatical anti-Zionism of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, with whom Hussein was locked in mortal combat.

Recollections of the “Iraqi option” contain bitter irony now. Israel has been hit by 30 Iraqi missiles in little more than two weeks and lives under threat of the chemical and biological weapons Hussein may possess.

But to a number of respected Israeli politicians and academicians, peace with Iraq seemed at one time logical and possible.

As far as can be pinpointed, the “Iraqi option” dates back to 1987.

Its proponents included Moshe Shahal, then the minister of energy; Labor Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer; Professor Amatzia Bar-Am of Haifa University; and Knesset member Ran Cohen of the Citizens Rights Movement.

Iraq seemed to be winning its war with Iran. Although it remained the only Arab combatant not to sign an armistice with Israel after the 1948 War of Independence, Baghdad was on friendly terms with Jordan and Egypt, supporters of the more moderate wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The situation seemed ripe for the emergence of a moderate Arab bloc in the Middle East, anchored in Cairo and Baghdad.


Israelis who thought so saw it as the natural closing of a circle.

Israel was one of the strongest supporters of the U.S.-backed regime of the Iranian Shah, which was overthrown in 1979. The Jewish state continued to clandestinely supply arms to non-Arab Iran despite the anti-Israel virulence of its Islamic fundamentalist leadership.

The Israeli air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 was indeed a gift to the Khomeini regime.

But after the establishment of a Labor-Likud national unity government in 1984 with Laborite Shimon Peres as its first prime minister, Khomeini was seen to be far more dangerous to Israel than Saddam Hussein.

Professor Bar-Am reported in a 1987 article that the Iraqi ambassador to Washington was actively courting the American Jewish leadership, even giving a dinner in honor of a group of mostly Jewish academicians and business leaders.

The Iraqi envoy surpassed himself when, speaking at Brandeis University, he asserted that the Palestinian problem was a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to solve, not a problem for Iraq.

The Iraqi option collapsed because Saddam Hussein preferred crude ideology to pragmatism, Bar-Am told Kol Ha’ir.

According to Ben-Eliezer of Labor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was also partly to blame. His hostility toward the Jordanian option pursued by his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, wrecked the secret “London Accord” between Peres and King Hussein of Jordan.

Had that agreement, reached at a secret meeting in the British capital in 1988, been adopted by Israel, it would have had a positive influence on the PLO and Iraq, Ben-Eliezer believes.

He thinks Saddam Hussein would have become part of a comprehensive peace process in the region under U.S. leadership. He would have enjoyed generous American economic aid and probably given up his designs on Kuwait.

In any event, Ben-Eliezer claims, Shamir was directly responsible for pushing King Hussein into the arms of Saddam Hussein.

Ben-Eliezer said the Jordanian ruler cast his lot with Iraq because he feared that the right wing Likud regime intended to implement “by force” the doctrine enunciated by its most outspoken hard-liner, Ariel Sharon, that Jordan is a Palestinian state, which would spell the end of the Hashemite monarchy.

To most observers, the “Iraqi option” stands as further proof that events in the Middle East are about as predictable as the patterns the wind makes on the desert sands.

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