By Sean Savage/JNS.org
During the last several years, Israel has witnessed the crumbling of its neighborhood as civil wars, internal strife and Islamic extremism have taken hold throughout the Middle East. As the Jewish state’s foes and allies alike face ongoing strife, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq have emerged as a striking source of stability, with the willingness to confront these threats.
A century after being denied statehood by European powers after the Ottoman Empire fell, the Kurds are slated to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq Sept. 25. For Israel—which has long courted support from the Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslims—an independent Kurdistan may prove to be a new and unexpected ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
During a recent meeting with a visiting delegation of 33 Republican members of the U.S. Congress last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his “positive attitude” towards an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, saying the Kurds are a “brave, pro-Western people who share our values,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
For Israel, the Kurdish referendum comes amid increased fears over Iran’s growing inroads in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Yemen. It was recently reported that Iran is building a facility in northwestern Syria to manufacture long-range SCUD missiles, while Iranian-backed militias have been involved in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq.
“Our policy is clear: We vehemently oppose the military buildup by Iran and its proxies, primarily Hezbollah, in Syria, and we will do whatever it takes to protect Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said.
Prof. Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Studies Program at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told JNS.org that an independent Kurdistan “is likely to be more stable, tolerant, pro-Western and secular than its other neighbors, values that can be good glue for relations with Israel.”
Both Kurdistan and Israel would have “common strategic interests” in countering radical Islam of both the Sunni and Shi’a persuasion, such as from Islamic State and Iran, said Bengio, author of the 2012 book “The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.”
“As brave fighters, the Kurdish Peshmerga [forces] have already proved their mettle in such encounters, so they are likely to help contain such radicals in the future as well,” she said.
Kurdistan and US-Israel relations
Despite tacit Israeli support, next month’s referendum—which experts believe is likely to support independence—comes against the backdrop of opposition from most of the international community, including the U.S.
Washington has long considered the Kurdish people to be a vital ally, especially in its bid to rid Iraq of Islamic State. But the U.S. fears the vote could ignite further conflict within Iraq and turn into another regional flashpoint.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has quietly called on the Kurdistan Regional Government to postpone the referendum, a request Kurdish leaders have dismissed.
Kurdish officials, who were recently revealed to have visited Israel, are hoping to enlist Israeli assistance in persuading the U.S. to back the bid for independence.
“They say that Israel has a strong lobby, and the ear of [President Donald] Trump, and that they would be very happy if we could help,” Member of Knesset Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), who chairs a caucus on Israeli-Kurdish relations, told The Jerusalem Post.
Bengio believes it is not the right of any nation to decide for another people whether independence is necessary, and at what point in time.
“After a hundred years of oppression, denial and genocide by the Baghdad governments, the Kurds of Iraq have reached the conclusion that they do not have any alternative but to rule themselves by themselves, and that now is the golden opportunity to fulfill this right,” she said.
One concern regarding Israel’s recognition of Kurdish statehood is how the move may affect its relations with Turkey, with whom the Jewish state repaired ties in 2016 after a six-year rupture.
Turkey, which is home to a substantial number of Kurds comprising up to 25 percent of its population, has long been opposed to the creation of a Kurdish state out of fears that it could embolden its own Kurdish population to break away from the country.
Despite these concerns, the Turkish government has forged strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq in recent years, cooperating on projects such as a Kurdish oil pipeline through Turkey.
“Turkey has developed a kind of dichotomy with regards to the ‘bad’ Kurds in Turkey and the ‘good’ Kurds in Iraq,” Bengio said, adding that Israel’s “recognition of [independence for] the so-called good Kurds would not hurt Ankara’s security perceptions.”
At the same time, Israel maintains relations with Turkey despite the fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime openly supports the Palestinian terror group Hamas.
“Ankara does not have qualms to support Hamas, which endeavors to eliminate Israel, so why should Israel have any problem in developing relations with the Kurds of Iraq, which not only do not threaten to eliminate Turkey, but are its strategic ally?” Bengio asked.
“In fact,” she said, “Israel should be assertive on the issue reciprocity.”