“Israel opposes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [the PKK] and sees it as a terror organization, as opposed to Turkey, which supports the terror organization Hamas. But while Israel opposes terror as such, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve a state of their own,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week.
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Perhaps it was no coincidence that his statement came only a few days after a speech by one of his Habayit Hayehudi partner-rivals, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, in which she touched on Kurdish independence. But she took it even further and said, “The Israeli and American interest is that there should be a Kurdish state, firstly in Iraq. It’s about time that the United States supports this.”
“Firstly in Iraq?” And where after that, Turkey? Iran?
Israel’s support for Kurdish independence is not new; Netanyahu has made similar declarations as far back as 2014. But the timing, less than two weeks before a September 25 referendum slated to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan, makes the Israeli message more than just moral support for the Kurdish people’s desire for an independent state. The statement, the first of its kind to be made by any world leader, is a dagger right in the eyes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is ideologically and strategically opposed to the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Netanyahu was delivering a double message to Turkey, although not solely to Turkey. As long as Turkey supports Hamas and doesn’t define it as a terror group, it can expect stones to be thrown at the glass house in which it lives. In addition, whoever supports an independent Palestinian state should be prepared for Israel to encourage the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Netanyahu’s comment probably didn’t take Turkey by surprise. When a series of attacks by the PKK occurred not long after the May 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that had originated in Turkey, Turkish MPs accused Israel of forging a vengeful alliance with the PKK. Then, last week, former IDF deputy chief of general staff Yair Golan told a conference in Washington that the PKK isn’t a terror organization. “When you look at Iran in the east, when you look at the instability in the region, a stable and unified Kurdish entity in the middle of this swamp is not a bad idea,” he said.
The remarks by Netanyahu, Shaked and Golan were widely reported in the Turkish and Kurdish media, but it’s doubtful such public statements do the Kurds any favors. While they appreciate Israel’s support, a senior official in the Kurdish administration in Irbil, the Kurdish capital in Iraq, said, “Particularly from Israel we would have expected quiet diplomatic activity and not a vocal policy that’s liable to undermine the delicate fabric of our relationships with neighboring states.”
What the Kurdish official means is that Israel’s public statements could portray the Kurds as collaborating with a country defined as an enemy by Iran while they are trying to gain international legitimacy for their cause. “If Israel really wanted to help, it could promote the issue in the White House and get the administration to declare its support for an independent state,” the official said. The White House opposes the referendum as being badly timed.
America’s general attitude is frustrating the Kurds. “We’re good enough for the United States to sacrifice our men in the war against the Islamic State, but not for when we ask for recognition of our demand to establish an independent state,” said a Kurdish journalist who insisted on anonymity. Nevertheless, he, too, isn’t sure the referendum is a good idea. “I’m not convinced that the timing is correct, and I’m not sure we even need a referendum when the chance of establishing an independent state is almost nil. When diplomatic conditions allow, we should simply declare a state and not take steps that have no practical significance and just provoke,” he said.
Moreover, holding a referendum just in the Kurdish area of Iraq “could be interpreted as if we’ve given up on establishing the historic Kurdish state that includes all of Kurdish territory,” he said. According to the Kurds such territory includes parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey as well.
But Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish district, is determined. He made it clear to Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Abu al-Rit, who came to Irbil to try to persuade him to postpone the referendum, that this is the Kurdish people’s right and there was no arguing about it.
The Kurdish referendum probably wouldn’t be attracting much attention if not for the significant role the Kurds have played in the battle against ISIS. Its forces have displayed impressive military capabilities; they managed to wrest cities and towns in northern Iraq from ISIS’s control and they are facing a key battle for the city of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, which is ISIS’s last stronghold in the country’s northern sector. In this campaign, the Kurds are cooperating with the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias, and as with other areas adjacent to the Kurdish region, the Kurds seek to add Hawija to its territory.
The war against ISIS has reordered the Kurds’ priorities. If after the second Gulf War their great achievements were joining the Iraqi government, the naming of a Kurdish president for the entire country and a fair share of government budgets, the war against ISIS has fed and nurtured the opposite process – that of separating from the mother country. The Kurds would see independence as worthy historic and national compensation for its large contribution to the war against a terror group that threatens the West.
Since the end of World War I, however, the Kurds have not been able to leverage their accomplishments into diplomatic results, and there is no certainty that this time, even though they enjoy international support, they will succeed in gaining their state.