Why Israel supports an independent Iraqi 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.
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.
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.