Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week that he supports the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, adding with a hint of empathy, “They deserve it.”
The implications of such a statement are monumental, but have largely been lost in the madness of the other events of the week. Outgoing President Shimon Peres also expressed support for the Kurdish cause in a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama the previous week, but to hear ultra-conservative Netanyahu speak such words in so public a manner represents a sea change in the Middle East as we know it.
Israel and the Kurds have had ties since the 1960s, when the latter envied the Zionists’ success in establishing and defending their young state. If the Jews, a long-stateless people, could get enough of the world on their side to establish Israel, why not the Kurds, a similarly stateless people who are rooted in the region – and never sent into exile in the first place? The Kurds didn’t have a holocaust, but they have suffered no shortage of horrors – most memorably Halapca, where in a 1988 chemical attack Saddam slaughtered more than 5,000 Kurds in one day; approximately 7,000 more were injured or suffered from long-term diseases.
“Like the Israelis, the Kurds already feel all their neighbors have been genocidal towards them at one point or another,” says Quil Lawrence, one of the leading American journalists on the Kurdish issue and the author of “Invisible Nation:
How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East.” A correspondent for NPR and the radio network’s former Baghdad bureau chief, Lawrence says Kurds have long been searching for allies in the hope of establishing their state, and on several fronts, their star is rising. “They’ve given up on the popularity contest approach. They’ll take allies where they can. They’re not naïve.”
What cracked the seemingly natural if quiet alliance between Israel and the Kurds was Jerusalem’s decision in the 1990s to put its eggs in a different basket: developing a strategic alliance with Turkey. Not only did Turkey insist that its allies – both in Israel and America – refrain from any support for the Kurds, but it saw Kurdish nationalism as such an existential threat that it wouldn’t even allow Turkish Kurds to be taught their own language in school and forbade people from giving their kids Kurdish names. But much has changed since then.
For one, the Israel-Turkey relationship has all but collapsed. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was already distancing himself from an alliance with Israel he disliked when Israel gave him two more reasons: Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.
Although reconciliation efforts have dribbled along, Israel no longer looks to Turkey as a reliable non-Arab Muslim ally that it must not risk angering. And Turkey, a country that once vehemently denied that there was such a thing as a Kurdish people, is apparently warming to the idea of a break-out Kurdish nation in northern Iraq. Now, advisers close to Erdogan say that Turkey is open to a divided Iraq with an independent Kurdistan as a result. And a few days ago, Erdogan announced a kind of rapprochement plan with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party).
Two factors have helped change Turkey’s tune: economics and radical Islam. Turkey has found in Iraqi Kurdistan a booming economic outlet, a place where Turkish businessmen have earned billions of dollars from trade and construction contracts. Seventy percent of Turkey’s business with Iraq is done through Iraqi Kurdistan, says Huseyin Celik, a key adviser to Erdogan.
The march of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - which last week declared itself a caliphate and shortened its name to the Islamic State - now looks far more worrying than a truncated Kurdish state, especially one that has managed to stay relatively stable over the past decade, far surpassing living standards and economic development elsewhere the country. While Baghdad is in danger of looking like Mogadishu circa 1993, Irbil and Suleimaniyeh look and feel more like Geneva or Salt Lake City.
If one were to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, one could say that he was doing his part to help set an historical injustice right: When the Middle East got carved up by Sykes-Picot and then by the League of Nations, Kurdistan was left off the map.
But it is hard for the Israeli leader, having built a career against Palestinian statehood, to speak out in favor of another people’s right to independence and self-determination. Netanyahu’s statement of support set off a Twitterstorm, with critics sending tweets like “Kurdistan=YES; Palestine=NO.”
Moreover, it’s not clear if Netanyahu’s statement does the Kurds any favors. Had it been followed by an equally unequivocal statement in Washington, Ankara, or any of Iraq’s neighbors, it wouldn’t be left to blow in the wind. But it wasn’t, and so it leaves the Kurds looking like they’re allied with the Israelis, which is not exactly the message they are hoping to broadcast to fellow Iraqis, or for example, the Iranians.
“I would say even moderate voices in the Muslim world are saying, ‘Look, the Zionists are behind you,’ and for the Kurds, this is problematic. I think maybe Israel should one of the first to state its support, but maybe not the first,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, an expert on the Kurds at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz.
On Tuesday, Iraq’s new parliament convened in Baghdad in an attempt to stop the country from splintering and to create a more inclusive government, as per the Obama administration’s demands. But the session descended into raucous shouting and within a half hour, was adjourned to the following week. Among the anti-Kurdish barbs that were thrown about, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition exclaimed: “We will crush beneath our shoe anyone who tears down the Iraqi flag,” according to reporter Jane Arraf in The Christian Science Monitor.
That one stung. The Kurds don’t want to be the ones to take all the credit – or blame as it were – for having broken up Iraq. The Islamic State, after all, is doing such a good job of that already, whereas if the Kurds do it, they may engender ire and accusations of plain greed and self-interest. Diplomats and journalists note that while Kurds want independent state, they aren’t exactly seizing the moment to insist on doing that now. By waiting, some say, they might gain more.
“The Kurds themselves have not declared independence nor sought support for such an initiative, so it all remains highly hypothetical,” Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told Haaretz.
Also on Tuesday, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum on independence within months.
If one takes a more critical look at Netanyahu’s words, he ought to have noticed that the timing of his statement was a bit premature and might hamper the Kurdish cause. Reading further into his statements in the same speech, he used the entire crisis, especially the Islamic State's lighting advances against large swaths of Iraq, as an argument for Israel staying permanently in the West Bank.
Speaking Sunday, Netanyahu said recent events in Iraq proved he was right to insist that the IDF remain deployed along the Jordan River in the case of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The IDF would need to continue its operations in the West Bank to protect Israel and ensure that Palestinian state doesn’t militarize, he said. It sounds reasonable. And from the Palestinian point of view, it sounds like a non-starter.
“There are always [lower-level] Kurdish politicians who will be screaming for independence now, and in Kurdistan it’s popular,” says Lawrence. “The more senior politicians will say, that’s our dream, but right now we’re being pragmatic.”
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