Iraqi Jew Ezra Levi reunites after 40 years with his Israeli sister Dalia shortly after his recent airlift from Iraq to Israel. (Photo: AP)Israel is becoming integrally involved in helping to reshape the post-war Iraqi landscape, both in the humanitarian and the business arenas. A recent declaration by Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu authorizing trade with Iraq has opened the doors for Israeli companies to bring services and products to the people of Iraq. And a new organization has been established by Iraqi-born Israelis aimed at examining different ways and means to provide them with humanitarian aid.
The new organization, called Israel’s Society for Solidarity with Iraqi People (ISSIP) is the brainchild of celebrated Baghdad born Israeli author Sammy Michael who also acts as its chairman. Its other founder members include leading Israeli intellectuals such as author and historian Sasson Somekh and Zohier Sasson, grandson of the last chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Baghdad.
“I don’t think anyone, in the government or among the public, realizes how much the Middle East has been shaken up by the downfall of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis are far more daring than the Jordanians and Egyptians. If they decide to go for peace with Israel it will be a very intensive, pragmatic and fruitful peace. Iraq does not, and will not, have any economic problems. It is a very rich country.” Michael told ISRAEL21c.
But Michael is pragmatic in admitting that a change is not going to occur immediately.
“Iraq is still far from a safe area to be in. We wanted to send a delegation of Israeli doctors over there, to help treat Iraqi children hurt during the war, but it’s not the right time for that yet either. But there are other ways we can contribute,” he says. “For example, a group of Iraqi emigrés, based in Washington DC, is currently working on devising a new constitution for a democratic Iraq. Members of the group often contact us, Iraqi born Israelis, for advice.
Of course, the recovery of any country ravaged by war is greatly facilitated by economic development. Michael sees the ISSIP helping in this area too.
“Some of the members of our solidarity organization are business people. I envisage them forging business links with Iraq. Don’t forget, the Jewish community in Iraq was very active in exports and imports, and much of modern activity in Iraq in this area was initiated by the Jews there. So, we have the right experience. And there are business partnerships between Iraqi born Israelis and Iraqi emigrés all over the world. The infrastructure is in place. We just have to wait for things to settle a bit in Iraq.”
Netanyahu’s decision to allow trade with Iraq will facilitate those business links. Until the authorization, Iraq was included in a list of hostile countries, with which trade was forbidden. The decision was coordinated with Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom, and includes commercial and financial links with Iraq, particularly the supply and transportation of goods, and the payment and transfer of funds. Netanyahu said that he had signed the permit after meeting with many businesspeople, who expressed their readiness to conduct commercial ties with Iraq, and explained the business potential of such links.
According to the to Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, there has already been rumblings of activity in this direction, ranging from snack food to telecommunications. Iraqi children will soon be able to munch on the quintessential Israeli snack food – bamba (peanut flavored puffs). The Osem recently received a request from Iraqis to market bags of bamba in Iraq. The company is considering the issue favorably, and examining ways of marketing the distinctly Israeli product in Iraqi markets.
Other Israeli companies have also made inroads in the Iraqi market according to the paper. The Tami 4 water purification company has already sent to Iraq over the past few days – through a foreign company – about 20 purification devices, worth NIS 50,000. The company’s CEO, Dror Murad, said that Tami 4 is engaged in negotiations for future transactions in Iraq worth hundreds of thousands of shekels.
Shiryonit Hosem, a manufacturer of steel doors, is also conducting negotiations for exports to Iraq in the approximate amount of NIS 2 million. Another topic on the agenda is the Iraqi cellular phone market. A tender will be issued in this market for three franchise-holders at the end of the month.
Israeli firms, which are active in the cellular phone market in Eastern Europe, are already taking an interest in the new virginal market, and intend to send representatives to a conference on the subject that will be held in Amman this week. As customary in such cases, the Israeli participation will be handled through a foreign agent.
Two Israeli businessmen – former chief of staff and transport minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Gilad Sher, who served as political adviser in Ehud Barak’s government, are currently engaged in setting up a system that will link and mediate between Israeli companies and Jordanian and American companies, which are active or plan to be active in the emerging Iraqi market. The activity is being carried out within the framework of Sher’s law firm.
Among the import requests that have reached Sher’s firm from Iraq are immediate requests for basic goods such as medical equipment, baby food and powdered milk, and more long-term requests for infrastructure, energy and water projects.
Two companies represented by Sher are already active in an effort to penetrate the Iraqi market: Waterpool-a company that manufactures mainly para-security products such as airport equipment and baggage screening devices-and Omnat, an Israeli group that deals with organizing and managing technological systems.
The American firm “Medset-Middle East Development” is expected open branches in Baghdad and Amman, as well as an extension in Israel. The company will operate in Iraq, and intends to use Israeli information and include Israeli companies.
On August 20 a large conference is planned in Israel by the Export Institute, which will focus on trade with Iraq. Jordanian companies and a number of Iraq business persons who are active in Europe will also be invited to the conference.
An American bank for foreign trade is currently engaged in advanced negotiations with an Israeli company for sending agricultural consultants from Israel to Iraq, and funding agricultural rehabilitation work there. The talks are being managed by Aharon Efroni, CEO of the Green East company and head of the Jewish-Arab institute at Beit Berl College.
According to Michael, it only natural for Jews to want to contribute – in one way or other – to the rebirth of the Iraqi constitution and to the country’s revival from the ashes of war. “Jews lived in what is now Iraq from the time of the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE). In fact, the Jews were there long before the Arabs. Jewish culture was never considered a foreign element in Iraq, and we [the Iraqi Jews] never felt outside the mainstream of Iraqi culture or way of life. When the British conquered Iraq, Jews took on key positions in the government. The Minister of Finance in the very first Iraqi government was Jewish.”
Although Michael and the ISSIP are, as yet, unable to operate in Iraq itself, he feels much can be achieved by proxy. “The people we are in touch with travel to and from Iraq freely. They have relatives in Iraq, and they have journalists working there. Through them we maintain indirect links with intellectuals, journalists and business people in Iraq. In practice, we are now building the foundation for cultural and other links between Israel and Iraq. There are many of us [Iraqi born Israelis] who, to this day, write in Arabic. It will take time for the situation in Iraq to stabilize, but we have waited 50 years, I think we can hang on for another 4 or 5.”
The highest profile Israeli activity in Iraq to date was the airlift of six elderly Iraqis to Israel. For them, there was no 4 or 5 years to wait.
Salima Moshe Nissim, 79, a lifelong resident of Basra, Iraq, was one of the six immigrants. Her sister Marcel Madar, 83, who left Basra in 1951, during a period when the vast majority of Iraq’s 130,000 Jews fled the country, was among several relatives waiting today at the Avia Hotel, just down the road from the airport. She was the only one Nissim had met before.
“I was all alone in Basra, and I was never happy because I could not see my family,” Nissim told The New York Times. Her last surviving relative in Iraq, her mother, died in 1967, and for years she knew of no other Jews living in the southern Iraqi city.
Nissim recalled that her two sisters and brother left Iraq in 1951, while she remained with her parents. Ms. Nissim married, but her husband died two years later. After her parents died, she managed to support herself by giving English lessons, feeling tolerated but not particularly welcome.
After the fall of Hussein, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society sent representatives to Iraq and located 34 Jews, almost all of them old, in poor health and living in a single Baghdad neighborhood, near a synagogue that rarely opened. Most decided to stay, at least for now. But six, all but one 70 or older, chose to leave. The Jewish Agency organized the flight, while the American forces provided a military escort to the Baghdad airport, according to Michael Rosenberg, a Jewish Agency official.
According to the Israeli news media, the charter was believed to have been the first direct flight between the countries since an airlift in 1950-51 that brought thousands of Iraqi Jews to Israel.
Upon his arrival, Ezra Levy, 75, brushed off the Hebrew he had rarely used in decades and recited a poem he had learned as a boy. “Do you bring me friendly greetings from my brothers there in Zion, brothers far yet near,” he said on Israel television. “O the happy! O the blessed! Do they guess what heavy sorrows I must suffer here?”
Two Jewish organizations, the Jewish Agency and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, organized the flight with the cooperation of the American military. The Jewish Agency is also working with the Americans to obtain Jewish archives that were seized by the Iraqi government.
News agencies contributed to this report.