Israel would welcome Kurdish state

In light of the ongoing chaos in Iraq, Israel welcomes an independent Kurdish state, while the United States and Turkey would prefer to wait.

al-monitor The SCF Altai tanker carrying Iraqi Kurdish crude oil anchors near Israel's Ashkelon port, June 20, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

turkey, kurds, kurdistan regional government, kurdish opening of turkey, kurdish oil, israel, iraq, independence

Jul 2, 2014

It was not a surprise for the tankers that loaded the Kurdish oil from Turkey’s Ceyhan terminal, as provided by the 50-year accord Turkey signed with Erbil, to drop anchor at Israel’s Ashkelon port. Furthermore, it was also not a surprise for the first positive response to the Kurdistan Regional Government's President Massoud Barzani, who told CNN, “Iraq is openly collapsing. It is time to determine Kurdistan’s future” — to come from Israel.

The prevailing perception was that an independent Kurdistan scenario, which would inevitably gain prominence while Iraq was disintegrating, would operate under the guardianship of Turkey, Israel and the United States. Although the US neocons are delighted with the prospect of a Kurdish state that will be a "natural ally" of Israel, President Barack Obama is wary of a new military adventure in the Middle East.

Although at the moment Kurdistan is an island of stability, to declare independence when there are 16 potential conflict points with Arabs and Turkmen could easily ignite violence in the region. When there is a raging serious issue of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to provoke a new chaos that will also drag in Arabs and Turkmen will be beyond the capacity of the United States to deal with. That is why, for Obama, the priority is setting up of a coalition government that will keep Iraq unified.

It is true that Ankara, with its investments in Iraqi Kurdistan and oil agreements, strengthened the hands of the Kurds against Baghdad. But this relationship that has assumed strategic dimensions compels the Kurds to consult Ankara before taking any steps. Ashti Hawrami, minister of natural resources for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Cansu Camlibel of the daily Hurriyet that Ankara will definitely be informed of steps to be taken.

In its official narrative, Ankara was still favoring the territorial integrity of Iraq, but the impression it gave was that should Iraq come apart, Ankara would leave a door open for Kurdish independence. Turkey doesn’t want to get entangled in the Iraq turmoil without first solving its own Kurdish issue. The recently introduced legislation to legalize negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) reflect the anxiety Ankara feels toward the potential impact of a Kurdish state on the peace process in Turkey.

Reactions of Iran, another regional country with its own Kurdish issues, although not stated openly, are similar to those of Turkey. Iran, which has built good relations with the KRG, especially with its Kurdistan Patriotic wing, attaches priority to preserving headway it made in Kurdistan. Iran keeps Kurdistan separate from other issues of Iraq.

We also note here that Kurds, while at times complaining about Turkey’s “patronizing attitude,” see Iran as developing more equitable relations with them. There must be a reason why KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani went straight to Tehran right after peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk on June 16.

Secret alliance that disrupted silence

Israel’s support of the long and justified struggle of the Kurds is not a secret. Israel, leaving aside Egypt and Jordan, which have recognized the Jewish state, has always sought allies to reinforce its legitimacy in the Muslim world to counter the Arab siege around it. For example, after Turkey, it was Azerbaijan that filled the vacuum, hence the importance of the Kurds.

Moreover, Israel has always had close ties with the Kurds. The Barzanis, uncle and nephew, have close ties with Jewish Kurds of Barzan and Acre. According to a 2008 study by researcher Selin Bolme conducted for SETA [the Political, Economic and Social Research Foundation of Turkey], Kurds assisted in the migration of Jews to Israel during the establishment of Israel and after the 1967 war. These traditionally close ties, plus the presence of 150,000 Jewish Kurds in Israel, contribute to intimate ties.

When the Kurds rebelled against the Baath Party's Arabization policy, Molla Barzani, father of Massoud Barzani, had his first contact with Israel in 1963. After the meeting that was arranged by the Iranian intelligence service SAVAK, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad provided arms, money and intelligence support to Kurds. The European representative of the Kurds, Kamuran Ali Bedirhan, was the key person in these contacts after first meeting with then-Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres. Israeli media have frequently reprinted 1967 photographs of Molla Barzani with then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Molla Mustafa Barzani paid a second visit to Israel in 1973.

Eyes on Iraq, Iran and Syria

The relations, which were kept under wraps to protect the Kurds, were revealed in 1980 by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Israeli newspapers wrote that Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani had met with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. While the 1970 autonomy agreement between the Kurds and Baghdad could not be given life because of the deadlock over Kirkuk, Israel was busy contributing significantly to development of autonomous elements in the Kurdistan Region.

According to Eliezer Tsafrir, the former Mossad station chief in Kurdistan, Israeli advisers trained Kurdish fighters between 1963 and 1975. That explains why Mossad is believed to be behind the sabotage of the Kirkuk refinery. In 1991, during the Desert Storm operation, Israel sent relief assistance to Kurds via Turkey, and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked the United States to protect the Kurds. According to American journalist Seymour Hersh, after the 2003 US occupation, hundreds of Israel agents trained the peshmerga forces. According to an Israeli official who spoke to Hersh, Iraqi Kurdistan was the eyes and ears of Israel in Iraq, Iran and Syria. In 2006, the BBC aired weapons-training Israeli agents were giving to Kurds. In 2006, during a visit to Kuwait, Massoud Barzani said, “It is not a crime to establish ties with Israel. If Baghdad sets up diplomatic ties with Israel, we will have them open a consulate in Erbil."

While the Kurds keep mum about their relations with Israel, the Israelis also stuck to a denial policy because they didn’t want to disrupt their relations with Turkey. When Turkey-Israel relations soured and Turkey’s relations with the Kurds developed far beyond expectations, then the motive for Israel’s silence also changed. Israeli defense official Amos Gilad last week said, “Our silence is the best way. Unnecessary remarks can only hurt the Kurds.” Former Mossad official Tsafrir told Reuters that the Kurdish side wanted the relations to remain secret.

Israel is ready, US prefers delay

With such an intimate relationship, it should not be a surprise that the tankers that loaded the Kurdish oil from our Ceyhan terminal were discharging their load at Israel’s Ashkelon. Also, it is not a surprise for Israel to be the first country to endorse an independent Kurdistan after Massoud Barzani told CNN: “Iraq is openly collapsing. It is time to determine the future of Kurdistan.”

Outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was in Washington on June 25 before handing power to Reuven Rivlin, told President Barack Obama that Iraq couldn’t be kept together without intensive foreign intervention and asked for support for Kurdish independence, saying, "The Kurds have actually created their own democratic state." The next day, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, “The establishment of an independent Kurdish state was probably inevitable.”

Netanyahu followed up his earlier statements by saying, “We have to support the independence aspirations of the Kurds."

A striking aspect of Peres’ remarks was that Turkey, too, was giving the impression of agreeing to a new status for the Kurds. Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) vindicated Peres’ forecast when he told the Financial Times on June 27: “In the past, the subject of an independent Kurdish state was considered to be a cause of war. Even the word Kurdistan was enough to make people nervous. But their name is Kurdistan. If Iraq is divided — and that seems inevitable — then they are our brothers.”

The conclusion from all these remarks is that Israel is more than ready for an independent Kurdistan while the United States and Turkey want that independence to be delayed until the option of keeping Iraq united is exhausted.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Fehim Tastekin