Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Is an independent Kurdistan finally about to be born? And if so, what does it mean for Israel?

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Shmuel Levin


Despite being delayed several times before, Iraqi Kurdistan is now set to vote in an independence referendum on 25 September 2017.

The Kurdish people are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, at approximately 30 million people. They speak “various dialects of their own language, Kurdish, although governments have sometimes banned its usage”, and are largely Sunni Muslim. Although they have no state of their own, they are indigenous to a mountainous region which covers territory in present day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.

Following World War One, the victorious Western allies promised to create an independent Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres. However, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected this, and instead signed the Treaty of Lausanne which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, but made no provision for a Kurdish state. This left the Kurds as a stateless minority spread across multiple countries.

In the almost 100 years since, Kurdish independence movements have been brutally quashed. Most notoriously, in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein deliberately targeted Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons. Kurdish independence movements have also been put down in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. 

However, the Kurds were able to consolidate their hold on northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, when the anti-Saddam international coalition established a no-fly zone in the area. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds signed onto the new Iraqi constitution, which declared Iraq a federal, democratic republic with autonomy for the Kurds. The years since the removal of Saddam Hussein have brought the Kurds tremendous opportunity, but also tensions with the central Iraqi government over issues such as territory, budgets, and oil.

Most recently, Kurdistan has proved itself to be a major player in the fight against ISIS and has suffered thousands of casualties along the way. Kurdish politicians are now arguing that “the people on whose land blood was shed deserve the right to determine their future”. On 8 June, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani tweeted: “I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25, 2017.”

Even if the referendum is successful, it still carries significant challenges. Internally, Kurdistan faces issues such as political struggles and weak governance. Externally, independence will most likely be opposed by Baghdad and by much of the international community. In addition, it should be noted that the referendum only relates to Iraqi Kurdistan, and does not directly affect Kurds in Turkey, Syria, or Iran.

But aside from the broader implications for the region, the referendum also has significance for Israel. In fact, Israel and the Jewish people share a long and complex relationship with the Kurds.

Kurdistan’s Jews

According to some traditions, Kurdistan’s historical Jewish communities were the “descendants of the Ten Tribes from the time of the Assyrian exile” in the 8th century BCE. According to the accounts of a 12th century traveller, there were more than 100 Jewish communities in Kurdistan at that time. One town alone was said to contain more than 25,000 Jews who spoke in Targum/Aramaic.

However, Kurdistan’s Jewish community left en-masse to Israel following the Farhud pogroms of 1941 and increased antisemitism in the wake of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Today the Jewish community in Kurdistan is virtually non-existent, with only small vestiges of Jewish identity remaining. (One notable exception is Sherzad Mamsani, who until recently was the official representative of Kurdish Jews at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs). According to one estimate, “there are almost 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, about half of whom live in Jerusalem.”

The Kurdish Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s became vocal supporters for the Iraqi Kurds. They staged “large demonstrations in front of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and called on the US government to protect the Kurds from Saddam [Hussein].” American Jewish activists also maintained relations with Kurdish officials, viewing the two nations as natural allies.

Israel’s Kurdish community has also maintained its unique Kurdish Jewish identity and traditions. Each year, the community celebrates Saharane, an annual Kurdish Jewish holiday, “when the ancient community gathers to sing, dance, eat, and trade stories from the old country in their traditional Aramaic tongue.”

Israel, and the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey

For its part, the State of Israel has had complex relations with the Kurds. As Kurdistan scholar Ofra Bengio notes, there has never been a clearly defined and consistent policy from Israel vis-a-vis the Kurds, or vice-versa. In addition, “there is a big difference between Israel’s relationship with the Kurdish leadership in Iraq and that in Turkey.”

In the early years after its creation, Israel pursued the ‘periphery doctrine’, a strategy which sought to counter the Arab-bloc by forming alliances with non-Arab Muslim states and Middle East minorities. In this climate, Israel began developing its relationship with the Iraqi Kurds following the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion in 1961. At the peak of this relationship, Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani secretly visited Israel twice, in 1968 and 1973. For the Kurds, Israel offered humanitarian aid, materiel, military training, and an important link to the United States. For Israel, the Iraqi Kurds provided intelligence and also a means to support the remaining Jews fleeing Iraq.

By contrast, Israel’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey has been far more strained. PKK militants have trained together with Palestinian militias and even participated in combat against Israel in Lebanon. For its part, Israel chose to keep its distance from the PKK in order to maintain a close relationship with Turkey. In 1999, following the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, widespread speculation of Mossad involvement saw hundreds march on the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. Then, in 2004, Israel sold ten Heron drones to Turkey, which the PKK suspected were being used against it. Even the more progressive voices amongst Turkey’s Kurds have chosen to criticise Israel, such as after Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014.

Current Israel-Kurdistan relations

Now that Iraqi Kurdistan is set to vote on independence, Israel’s position remains complex. At least until recently, Israel has generally refrained from public comment because of the political sensitivities. US policy has traditionally maintained that Iraq should remain a united state and should not be broken up. In addition, Israel has sought to tread a careful path with Turkey, which opposes a Kurdish state in Iraq, for fears that it would “stir up independence yearnings among its own Kurdish population”.

However, in a rare move, Netanyahu recently told a delegation of 33 Republican congressmen and women that he is in favour of an independent Kurdish state in parts of Iraq. This followed calls from former Israeli Minister of the Interior Gideon Sa’ar for Israel and the United States to play key roles in advancing Kurdish independence.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu expressed his “positive attitude” towards a Kurdish state, saying the Kurds are a “brave, pro-Western people who share our values.” Israel and Kurdistan also have a shared normative basis as small nations seeking self-determination in a hostile Middle East region.

Aside from this, an independent Kurdistan would also be strategically beneficial for Israel. In the aftermath of Syria’s civil war, Iran has sought to create a territorially contiguous ‘Shi’ite crescent’, via Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. While Israel has been able to prevent Iranian sea and air shipments to groups like Hezbollah, an independent Kurdistan would break up the land-route and it is unlikely that Iranian shipments would be allowed to pass through.

In addition, Israel’s relationship with Turkey has soured in recent times. Following recent provocative statements from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid called for Israel to “do the things we avoided doing as long as we had good relations with Turkey, because we don’t have any [now] and won’t have any [in the future].” This included recognising an independent Kurdistan and acknowledging the Armenian genocide.

Kurdistan also provides significant economic opportunities for Israel. As such “Israeli businessmen are already welcome in Erbil, and the development needs of a new emerging and potentially pro-western nation would be worth billions.” In addition, Kurdistan could form a significant source of oil for Israel.

But despite all of this, Israel still needs to tread carefully. Opposition to an independent Kurdish state is a rare foreign policy item which unites the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Even Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has stated its opposition to a referendum at this time, on grounds that it “risks causing further instability in Iraq that would weaken both the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government" and that it has not been negotiated with the Iraqi central government.

By all accounts, the referendum appears to be going ahead. For now, it seems that Israel is cautiously in support, albeit largely behind the scenes.