When Iraqi Kurds a look around, they see potential enemies to the north, south, east and west. The Turks, Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians all rejected last week’s referendum for an independent Kurdistan.
Despite the objections, more than 90% of roughly three million Kurds who voted chose independence; in response, a number of countries imposed economic sanctions and threatened military intervention.
Even one of the Kurds’ closest allies, the United States, said the results lacked “legitimacy” and continued to express support for a united Iraq.
Each country has its own reason for opposing the referendum, but there is one regional power that has thrown its weight behind the Kurds’ drive for independence: Israel.
A decades-old relationship
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement ahead of the referendum saying Israel “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
At a conference on counter-terrorism last month, Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked added her support, saying, “A free Kurdistan should be established, at least in Iraq. It is in the United States’ and Israel’s interest for this to happen. It is time for the US to support the process.”
Relations with Iraqi Kurds can be traced back to the early years of the state of Israel, in the 1940s and 50s. Many Kurdish Jews who left Iraq to move to the new state kept in contact with their families back home. That turned into Israeli support for the Kurdish resistance in Iraq, beginning in the 1960s.
And while Israel has gone on to establish peace with Egypt and Jordan, Seth Frantzman, a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs in Herzliya who has traveled to northern Iraq, sees Israel’s relationship with the Kurds as different.
“Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan isn’t a warm peace. The average Egyptian on the street hates Israel and/or the Jews. In Jordan the feeling is [only] slightly less,” says Frantzman. “With the Kurds, there is warmth on the street level, and if they got independence it would be another country that has good relations with Israel.”
Frantzman sees that good relationship translating into tangible benefits with the creation of a Kurdish state.
“Israel would welcome another state in the region that shares its concerns about the rising power of Iran, including the threat of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq,” says Frantzman. “Reports have also indicated that oil from Kurdistan is purchased by Israel.”
Israel’s support hasn’t gone unnoticed
But not everyone in Israel is so eager to support, at least openly, an independent Kurdish state. Retired Major General Amos Gilad, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, believes Israel needs to tread carefully.
“I’m not so sure that they need our public support, because that opens up the allegation that we are behind the Kurds, or that we are behind the referendum. And that, in turn, would mean we are behind a threat to Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – [which is something] that might unite them [against us]. It’s very easy to unite against Jews or the State of Israel.”
Indeed, this support by Israel for Iraqi Kurdish independence has not gone unnoticed by their neighbors.
Iranian state media characterized the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, as a puppet of Netanyahu. It accused Israel of trying to divide the region and weaken Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a thinly-veiled accusation that Israel’s intelligence service had assisted the push for independence.
“It made us sad that [Iraqi Kurds] paraded Israeli flags in their hands,” Erdogan told a crowd recently, referencing the sight of Kurdish and Israeli flags being waved together at an independence rally in northern Iraq. “It shows the administration’s ties.”
Turkey and Israel used to enjoy warm diplomatic, economic, and military links. But, strained by Israel’s wars in Gaza, relations have frayed dramatically during Erdogan’s leadership.
Netanyahu shot back at Turkish allegations during his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, saying, “I understand why those who support Hamas, and want to see [the involvement of] Mossad [everywhere] are uncomfortable, but Israel had no part in the Kurdish referendum, apart from the deep, natural sympathy that the people of Israel have had for many years for the Kurdish people and their aspirations.”
It is yet to be seen how far Israel’s support for the Kurds will extend. The Kurdistan Regional Government says the referendum will give it a mandate for talks to secede from Iraq, although Baghdad has already ruled out such talks. Whether an independent Kurdistan could survive without the support of its neighbors, as Erdogan predicts, is unclear.
“Who will accept your independence?” Erodgan asked rhetorically to students after the referendum, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. “Israel? But the world is not constituted only of Israel.”