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Iraq-Israel relations could 'be the best'

Baghdad-born Iraq maven David Sasson on Israel's mistakes in pre-Saddam Iraq and the opportunities that beckon now

By: Isabel Kershner

David Sasson has always believed in peace between Israel, Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. Now, asserts this retired, Iraqi-born Israeli businessman, who has maintained contacts over the years with influential Arabs and particularly Iraqi exiles, including leading mem-bers of the Iraqi opposition, it is up to Israel to open itself up to the possibility of peace and not to repeat past wrongs. "We've made a lot of mistakes, " Sasson states to The Report in the wake of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. "No Israeli politicians understood anything about the Arabs. They could never read the map of the Middle East. "
For an Israeli, Sasson probably has more experience of the Middle East than most. Born in Baghdad in 1931, he studied not at the Jewish school, but at a government school with his Arab Muslim neighbors. "I spent my best time there", he reminisces. But in 1950, along with tens of thousands of other Iraqi Jews, he fled to Israel, in his case via Iran. He studied at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, was "taken" into the army, then worked for many years in the travel business.
After the 1973 war, however, he wanted to leave the country. "I said the Israelis know how to make war, not peace, " he recalls today. Sas-son headed for the shah's Iran, where he be-came a partner in an Arabic-speaking business until he was forced to escape again, this time from the Khomeini revolution of 1979. Next stop was Cairo, where he lived for three years and established a trading business, shipping various goods between Israel and the port of Alexandria. After the war in Lebanon in 1982, though, "everything stopped. I felt very bad as an Israeli Jew Living in Cairo while Israel was bombing Beirut. "

At that point Sasson says he got "tired of the Middle East." Together with an Egyptian colonel from Nasser's rev-olution, he formed a commodities investment company in London. Now retired, he splits his time between London and an apartment in Tel Aviv.

In 1997, he founded the Iraqi-Israeli Friendship Committee in Tel Aviv, in solidarity with the Iraqi people, along with other prominent Iraqi-born Israelis such as Tel Aviv University Prof. Sasson Somekh and author Sami Michael. And now he says he is the only Israeli and Jew involved in the recently formed Development Fund for the Re-building of Iraq, a London-based forum of Iraqi-born businesspeople dedicated to helping the free Iraq get back on its feet.

An Iraqi version of a macher, Sasson counts among his best friends an old Baghdad school buddy who rose to become vice-president of OPEC and an exceedingly wealthy Iraqi exile whose family owned all the land on which Saddam 's palaces were built. He says he now plans on bringing them to Israel to address a meeting of former Iraqis living in the Jewish State.
The Jerusalem Report: You speak about Israel having made mistakes, and its politicians not having read the Middle East-ern map correctly. Are you convinced Iraq and the Arab world wanted peace with Israel?

David Sasson: I can tell you one thing: Following the 1958 revolution in Iraq, the new ruler, Qassem, was against Nasser and Arab nationalism, and wanted to make peace with Israel. The Is-raelis said he was mad and foolish, because he went with the Soviets against the British ... Then there was a coup against him and the Ba'athists came, [ending with] Saddam.

How did your Iraqi Muslim friends in exile react to the solidarity committee you established in Israel?

They sent me faxes you couldn't imagine. One said that the Iraqi Jews have more rights in Iraq than anyone else in the world. In the days of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad was over 70 percent Jewish! My good friend is the editor of Al-Mu'tamar (the Iraqi opposition paper published in London). Now he's gone to Kuwait to establish Somer, a new paper for Baghdad, and he asked me to find Iraqi Jewish writers from Israel, Can you imagine that?

What is the nature of your activity in the Iraq Development Fund project?

It is not for raising mon-ey, only for making connec-tions between big firms from all over the world and the people in Iraq. There will be another meeting in June, to which I will invite Israelis to speak, and I will bring some big Iraqi businesspeo-ple from London to Israel.

Have they expressed a willingness to come?

Yes. They said they are ready to come to a meeting in Israel and speak. This is my life. I'd like my people to live in peace. I'm an Israeli. In all the pages of Al-Mu'tamar, you won't find anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They don't like the Palestinians because they went with Saddam in 1991.

How do you see things developing politically in Baghdad?

The Americans must quickly establish a new Iraqi government with a Prime Minister for a period of six months to a year, until elections can be held. I hope they won't stay beyond that time.

Do you foresee relations with Israel at some point?

They will be the best. Better than Israel's relations with Egypt or anyone else. I know the opposition leaders. They like us.

Are you in contact with Israeli politicians and leaders?

No. If they want, they know all about me. Why should I contact them?

Will you go back to Baghdad?

I want to visit. I don't know about going to live there. I'd like to go back to see my school. I could go if I wanted, even with my Israeli passport. I have the contacts.

When do you think other Israelis will be able to go to Iraq?

Speak to me in another six months.

From: The Jerusalem Report May 5, 2003



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