ERBIL - "We are the second Israel!"
The man pumps his hand in the air for emphasis and glowers at me. He wants to be heard.
I am in a polling station in the regional capital of Erbil, as the people of Iraqi Kurdistan vote in a referendum for independence – and the message I am hearing is an overwhelming "Yes". The time has come, they tell me again and again, for them to have their own state.
And it seems that, for many, Israel is a model. In the numerous pro-independence rallies that preceded the vote on 25 September, Israeli flags could be spotted waving amongst the sea of Kurdish red, white and green. Israel has gained many friends in Erbil as pretty much the only significant power to come out openly in support of Kurdish independence. "[Israel] supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared recently.
Maruf Sadiq Maruf continues: "In 1988 I was listening to BBC Arabic. It was soon after Halabja [the chemical attack weapons attack by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds, which killed around 5,000 people] and the presenter asked three people, an Iranian, a Frenchman and a British guy if, as a result of this attack, the Kurds would become another Israel. And they all said 'yes.'"
Maruf is 45 years old and the director of the polling station set up at the Erbil Science High School for Boys, and he is not done yet. The sense of kinship he feels toward Israel – because of a perception of shared suffering and the search for a homeland – were points he repeated and that I heard again and again at polling stations across Erbil.
Kurdish-Israeli ties are strong for a number of reasons: the wars against Arab states for Kurdish rights have given them a sympathy for Israel's wars against their own Arab enemies – and in a sea of fundamentalism, Kurdish organizations remain largely secular archipelagoes.
In Kurdistan, Israel has that rarest and most precious of things: a potential regional ally of strategic importance. It is a point that Netanyahu seems to realize – but it wasn’t always this way.
The day after the vote, over breakfast at Erbil’s luxurious Divan Hotel, the French philosopher-cum-diplomat Bernard-Henri Levy told me of a meeting he had with Netanyahu and Shimon Peres in 2012. Levy had, he told me, tried to convince the two men just how valuable an ally Kurdistan could be. Neither seemed overly impressed with the idea.
But the realization has set in. In Kurdistan, Israel has several things. First, it has a Sunni Muslim ally, which is valuable at the ‘cosmetic’ level because Israeli-Turkish relations are all but destroyed – and while Egypt and Jordan remain official allies, both of their respective populations are vehemently anti-Israeli.
Second and more critically, Kurdistan’s geopolitical position could not be more favorable. It sits on the borders of Iran, Syria and Turkey and also opposes the U.S. policies that have allowed Iran to expand its influence across the region.
Kurdistan can't quite be Israel's south Lebanon (it cannot fight Iran or its proxies for a multitude of reasons) but it could do even better. Contrary to Hezbollah, the Kurds are Western allies with considerable (legitimate) financial clout - they control one third of Iraq's oil – combined with their ability to create large reserves of goodwill in Western capitals, which, were they to they achieve independence, would translate into effective diplomatic capabilities. For these reasons they can help to check Iran's growing influence across the Middle East.
Senior Kurdish figures are aware of what they can offer Israel, but are also realistic about what to expect in return.
Sarbast Hussain, a former Peshmerga commander and leading observer of the country’s politics, lays out the Kurdish view: "Israel will act only in favor of its national security – and that is fair enough. But as a center of democracy, an independent Kurdistan is automatically at odds with Shia and Sunni fundamentalists. Iran and Turkey will be hostile to us and we will make Iraq weaker. This will all benefit Israel."
And what of the Palestinians – does the Kurdish struggle of statehood make him sympathize with Palestinian independence aspirations? "No," he replies. "It’s not their state; in the years leading up to the late 1940s they sold their land to the Jews, now they want it back. They have rejected multiple peace offers because they want to throw the Israelis into the sea and that will never happen. I have no sympathy for them."
Late on 26 September, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani declared that his people had voted "yes" in the referendum and called on world powers "to respect the will of millions of people." Independence will not happen overnight; but the die has been cast.
An independent or even more autonomous Kurdistan - secular, oil-rich, battle-hardened and pro-Israel - is the perfect ally for Jerusalem in a Middle East where it is the perennial outsider.
For Israel as a Jewish nation, support for Kurdish independence is a moral imperative; for it as a Middle Eastern state it is a strategic necessity. No matter what the political opposition, Israel must hold fast; it must succeed where so many others have failed: it must not let the Kurds down.
David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State and the forthcoming War in 140 characters: How Social Media is Reshaping conflict in the 21st Century. He is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and contributing writer at Politico, Poynter Fellow at Yale University and an Associate Fellow at the School of Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews. Twitter: @dpatrikarakos
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