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 opposition group who has forged strong ties with the White House and 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.
Chalabi’s group has been assigned to help U.S. troops impose order in Baghdad — a sign, some argue, that the congress is favored to play a large role in any interim government the United States forms in Iraq.
The Iraqi National Congress is not universally liked within the Bush administration. Reports stress that the State Department and the CIA are concerned about the congress’ lack of popular support in Iraq.
JINSA and other Jewish organizations met with Chalabi and other congress leaders in the run up to the war last fall, part of the Jewish community’s effort to strengthen Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
With the Bush administration preparing at the time to overthrow the regime in Baghdad, both the congress and Jewish groups said they had something to gain from a strong bond.
The congress saw 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 congress is involved in replacing dictator 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 congress’ 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 congress’ Washington office, because the congress 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, is vice chairman of JINSA’s board of directors.
Calling the Jewish approach “short-sighted,” he said it would be “much more helpful if Jewish groups reached out to other groups, such as the Kurds,” as well.
Qanbar disputes that claim. He says Jewish groups have been among the first to form an alliance with the congress 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 Iraqi National Congress 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 chair 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 congress was founded shortly after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, combining several smaller opposition forces within Iraq.
It operates a newspaper, a television station, regional offices and a center for humanitarian relief. It is based in Salahuddin in northern Iraq and has its external base in London.
The United States has given the congress more than $26 million during the past three years. U.S. aid to the group was suspended in January because of the congress’ alleged mismanagement of funds, but resumed a month later.
The United States also has given a smaller amount, $315,000, to another opposition group, the Iraqi National Movement, and $1.5 million to the Future of Iraq Project, which brings together numerous opposition groups, including the congress.
Qanbar says the congress reached out to the Jewish community because it is the best avenue to get to the Israeli government. Israel, he believes, should reciprocate by reaching out to the congress and getting more involved in creating political change in Iraq.
“The Jewish groups in Washington have some influence in Israel,” he told JTA in an interview last fall.
Qanbar said he believes good relations with Israel are possible under a new regime because Saddam is the one who had a problem with Israel, not the Iraqi people.
His analysis is contradicted by history, however: Iraqi antagonism toward Israel predates Saddam by several decades, as Iraqi army units invaded Israel during its 1948 War of Independence.
In addition, popular attitudes toward the Jewish state surely have been influenced by decades of fiercely anti-Israel propaganda.
Qanbar also said the congress urges the resolution of all regional conflicts without violence.
Chalabi told the JINSA audience in October that Saddam is the source of all terrorism in the Middle East and that governmental change in Iraq would affect the regional dynamics to the benefit of the United States and Israel.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.