Israel Pulse

Israel cheers on Kurds while ignoring Palestinians

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Article Summary
Senior Israeli politicians and the Israeli media have been showering the Kurds with warmth and support in their independence effort while ignoring the Palestinian aspirations for self-determination.

"I hope that if a majority votes for independence, Israel will be the first state to recognize the independence of Kurdistan." That is what former Minister Gideon Saar from Likud tweeted as millions of Kurds in northern Iraq voted on a referendum on whether to declare independence on Sept. 25. Saar may have been the first Israeli politician to wish the Kurds success in their struggle for independence, but he was hardly the only one. On the other hand, Turkey, Iraq and Iran all reject the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, as does the United States, which is concerned that such a step at this point in time could lead to war in the region. Israel is the only state that has expressed support for Kurdish aspirations.

Israel's approach developed not only because it is in its strategic interests, but also because the Kurds have a moral right to statehood. It is also impossible to dismiss the long historic bond between Israel and the Kurds and the many years of cooperation between them.

Right after Saar tweeted, Communications Minister Ayoob Kara tweeted his support for the Kurdish demand for independence: "The Kurdish referendum will expedite a comprehensive arrangement in the Middle East, and correct the historic Sykes-Picot Agreement, which failed to consider the needs of many minorities, including 40 million Kurds." In the photo accompanying his tweet, Kara tagged himself with a senior Kurdish official with whom he had met. The Twitter-fest was far from over.

Many more Israeli politicians used the medium to shower warmth and support on the Kurds. Knesset member and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid was up next. He chose to send his best wishes for the success of the referendum in English: "The Jewish people know what it is to struggle for a homeland," Lapid tweeted. "The Kurds have a moral right to a state of their own." Lapid emphasized the common destiny of the Jewish people and the Kurds of northern Iraq, adding a deep-rooted emotional component to his support. That, however, wasn't enough for the Yesh Atid chairman. Later in the day, Lapid linked to what he called an "excellent article" in The New York Times, written by Ron Prosor, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

Prosor explains the strategic importance of creating an independent Kurdistan and claims that it would be a wise move for the United States to support Kurdish independence because the Kurdish state would contribute to the war against the Islamic State (IS), especially since the Kurds are already important allies in this struggle. Prosor believes that US support for the referendum and an independent Kurdistan would be a victory for democratic values, self-determination and minority rights. He even recalled the brutal regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who attacked the Kurds with chemical weapons 30 years ago, citing it as evidence of a moral obligation to support the Kurds in their quest for independence.

Israeli support for the Kurds of northern Iraq also streamed forth from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a Sept. 12 statement released by Netanyahu, he declared that Israel "support[s] the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state." In fact, Netanyahu expressed his support for an independent Kurdish state in 2014.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of HaBayit HaYehudi was especially supportive of Kurdish independence in a speech this month at the Herzliya Conference. She explained, "It is in the interest of Israel and the United States that a Kurdish state be established." In a speech to the Herzliya Conference in 2015, Shaked had referenced the Kurds' commitment to democracy, the long ties between the Jewish people and the Kurds and their common interests, which she said were more apparent than ever. They were both fighting against radical forces, particularly IS, which the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have been relentlessly fighting. In that speech, Shaked argued that the situation represented a rare chance to reshape the character and future of the Middle East. In other words, it should not be missed.

Most Israeli politicians who have expressed public support for the Kurds' struggle for a state of their own align themselves with the right. These same people — who are so excited about the Kurdish fight for independence and speak, like Shaked, about the rights of Kurds and the moral legitimacy of their cause — are incapable of showing the same understanding toward the Palestinians even though that issue is far more important to Israel's security than the Kurdish struggle. This exposes a double standard and their complete inability to consider the legitimate Palestinian desire for self-determination.

Obviously, this is not an attempt to claim that the two cases are similar. It is difficult to remove Palestinian terror against Israeli citizens from the equation. Nevertheless, both cases involve peoples fighting for national, territorial and political independence. Ignoring what is happening right under Israel's nose while commenting on the Kurdish referendum is a form of psychological repression.

The Israeli media expressed its encouragement and support for the Kurds through its extensive coverage of the referendum. Such encouragement is, in fact, the legacy of a large sector of the Israeli public, as illustrated by interviews with security officials who had been sent by various Israeli governments to northern Iraq in the 1960s to provide the Kurds with support and training.

This period of cooperation, which lasted a decade, was particularly fruitful and close, according to Brig. Gen. (Res.) Tzuri Sagi in an interview with Army Radio. Sagi, 83, said that he was sent to train the Kurdish army in 1966 and spent many long years in Kurdistan, together with representatives of Mossad, Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps and Israeli combat officers. Of note, they entered the region through Iran, which then had warm diplomatic relations with Israel. Sagi spoke fondly about the Kurdish people and said that he eagerly awaited the Kurdish declaration of independence "despite the wrath and fury of the entire world."

Similar messages were conveyed by former Mossad officer Eliezer Tzafir in a Sept. 25 interview with Maariv. Tzafir has fond memories of the warm relationship between Israel and the Kurds whom he calls a "noble people." He called for the Kurds to be granted a state of their own.

One might expect all this from politicians on the right, but it is too bad that the Israeli media embraced the romance of the Kurdish referendum while ignoring the Palestinian cause. After all, the Palestinian issue should immediately come up in any discussion of this kind.

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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