|The Baghdad International Fair first opened its doors in 1964 [EPA]|
The ten-day Baghdad International Fair opened its doors for the 36th time on November 1.
Featuring exhibits from major international companies, the trade fair was held annually from 1964 until the 2003 US-led invasion. It resumed in 2007.
However, a change to the fair’s charter this year has angered many Iraqis.
The Iraqi government has dropped an article from the charter which obliges participating companies to prove they do not have trade links with Israel.
A memo from the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs on October 7, alerted foreign embassies to the decision to drop article 45.
Sources within the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Al Jazeera that the EU had warned Iraqi officials that if article 45 was not removed, European companies would not participate in this year’s event.
An EU source, who cannot be named because she is not authorised to speak to the media, said the first invitations to the fair, which were received by the embassies of EU countries in April, included the clause. However, EU missions in Baghdad later received an amendment suggesting that participating companies would not be required to boycott Israel.
Officials from the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs were unavailable for comment.
‘Destroying national spirit’
Members of the Iraqi parliament told Al Jazeera that they were unaware of the decision to remove the clause.
Nasar al-Rubei, a spokesperson for the al-Sadr parliamentary bloc, vowed to launch a campaign to restore article 45.
“It is not up to the government to take any action when it comes to Israel,” he said.
“We live in a society that looks at Israel as an entity built on stolen land. We know that Iraq’s foreign policy has not been defined yet, we know Iraq’s foreign policy is the government’s responsibility, but the relation with Israel is a special case. They must not touch it without people’s approval.
“From our side, we will fight to restore article 45, we will launch a campaign to collect signatures for a petition asking the government to review its decision and to promise not to change anything related to Israel without the parliament’s approval.”
Laila al-Khafaji, a member of parliament from the Unified Iraqi Coalition, said: “We were completely unaware of that issue. I hold the ministry of foreign affairs and [the] foreign relations committee in the parliament [responsible] for making the parliament the last to know.”
Dhafir al-Ani, a member of parliament from al-Tawafuq bloc, sees the move as part of a long-term plan to condition Iraqis to accept Israel.
“When you see Iraqi political parties racing to win blessing from US officials, what do you expect? We said it from the beginning, we in Iraq can clearly see an organised plan to destroy Iraqis’ national spirit,” he said.
“Every Iraqi grew up on the idea that Israel is a criminal and illegitimate entity. Examples that Iraqis truly believed that are plenty in history. For instance, Iraq does not share borders with Israel, yet it participated in all Arab-Israeli wars.
“We think one of the main targets of the war on Iraq was to remove Iraq from Israel’s security threat list.”
In 2004 he became the first Iraqi politician to visit Israel.
Upon his return he was immediately fired from the Iraqi parliament and his party, the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation, was expelled from the Iraqi National Congress.
He also survived an attempt on his life in which two of his sons were killed.
He visited Israel again in 2008, saying: “I want to negotiate with Israel for the sake of Iraq. There are several Arab countries talking to Israel.
“The Palestinians themselves sit with the Israelis, should we be royalists more than the king himself?”
But al-Ani opposes this perspective, saying: “It is true some Palestinian politicians sat with the Israelis and started a political process with them, but why should we not look at the other part of the Palestinians, who still up to now oppose what their politicians have done. They are the majority.
“In the rest of the Arab world, the majority of the population is against establishing contacts with Israel.”
A history of boycotts
In 1951 the Arab League established the Bureau for Boycotting Israel. Based in Damascus, Syria, the bureau has lost much of its authority since Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed peace treaties with Israel.
It still holds bi-annual meetings with representatives from Arab countries which have not signed peace treaties with Israel.
Before the US-led invasion, Iraq adhered closely to the instructions of the bureau. Israeli companies, those with Israeli shareholders and companies with dealings with Israel were banned in Iraq.
Iraqi ties with the US were cut after the US supported Israel in the 1967 war, and although they were restored in 1984, commercial deals with the US were kept to a minimum.
Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq endured 13 years of UN sanctions. During this time speculation was rife that one of the aims of the sanctions was to force Iraq into a peace process with Israel.
Al Jazeera has obtained a document written by Saddam Hussein’s secretary, which conveys Hussein’s rejection of an offer to partake in a peace process with Israel in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
In April 2002, Iraq stopped its oil exporting operations for a month in protest at Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories.
‘Fruit of US strategy’
|This document conveys Hussein’s rejection of an offer to ease sanctions in exchange for peace talks with Israel|
Arab countries are essentially divided into two groups; those, such as Egypt and Jordan, who have signed peace treaties with Israel, and those who still do not have diplomatic ties or any sort of contact with Israel.
For many Arab countries, the US-led invasion of Iraq signalled the loss of a strategic asset in their conflict with Israel.
Bahrain closed its offices of the Bureau for Boycotting Israel in 2006 after signing a free trade agreement with the US. Shortly thereafter, some Bahraini officials began urging the establishment of contacts with Israel.
However, Bahrain’s parliament – ignoring government objections – has just passed a bill outlawing any contact with Israel and introducing prison sentences for anybody found to be breaking this law.
Badi Rafaia, a spokesman for the Federation of Anti-Normalisation with Israel Unions Committee in Jordan, said the US-led invasion of Iraq removed one of the last remaining obstacles to Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.
“[Before the war] Iraq was the main obstacle to Israel’s plan to establish ties with Arab countries and subsequently swallow Palestinians’ rights and demands,” he said.
“We believe that Iraq’s decision to allow companies with ties to Israel to work in the country is the fruit of American strategy in the region.
“Most Arab countries in the region, including my country Jordan, signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan-Israeli peace stipulates that Jordan would no longer boycott Israeli goods; moreover it stipulates that Jordan should help to carry other Arab countries to end boycotting Israeli goods.
“I assure you, it is not something Arab public opinion is proud of.”
Israel is well-known for its advanced technology and industry and some observers may find it hard to imagine an effective boycott by the Arabs, who are still far behind Israel and the West in these fields.
However, Rafaia argues that the boycott strategy has proved successful in many parts of the world and that there are plenty of examples of underdeveloped nations achieving their goals via these means.
“Economic boycott is a successful strategy if it was well planned. The Indian leader Gandhi used this strategy against Britain, when his country was occupied … And it worked,” he said.
“In [the case of] Arabs boycotting Israel, all I can tell you is if the boycott was not effective, Israel would not try to use every opportunity to break or at least ease the boycott by Arabs of its products and services.”