The referendum that Iraqi Kurdistan held last week may not have been the first since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but this time it took place without the agreement of the central government in Baghdad. The leaders in Erbil declared their intention to advance toward separation – it’s important to stress that they spoke of “separation,” not independence. Under international law, separation is the disengagement of one of the state’s components.
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Israel has a long history of strategic ties with the Kurdish people in general and the Iraqi Kurds in particular. It must respect the desire of the Kurdish people and recognize their state, but it would be best if it did so together with the international community, and on condition that the separation takes place in a legal, nonviolent fashion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration in favor of Kurdish separation raises the question of whether support for unilateral Kurdish disengagement serves Israel’s interests. The answer is negative.
First of all, it isn’t reasonable for Israel, which opposes foreign intervention in anything regarding the Palestinian territories, to support regional separation plans. This is especially true given the fact that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process toward a permanent arrangement based on the principle of two states is considered more important and legitimate than Kurdish separation in northern Iraq. Moreover, the Kurds in Iraq are citizens and are partners in the Iraqi government, while Palestinians have no civil rights in Israel.
Secondly, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution, the Kurds have played a central role in Iraq’s government since 2003 and they enjoy broad autonomy that preserves a balance within the Iraqi political framework. Kurdish disengagement would turn Iraq into an Arab country with a clear Shi’ite majority and pave the way for the Iranians to seize control there. Israel must ask itself what it prefers: diplomatic ties and security cooperation with an Asian Islamic state like Azerbaijan, or special relations with an influential component in the heart of an important Arab country, like the Kurds in Iraq, with whom it may be possible to establish official relations in the future.
Third, it would behoove Israel not to feed the region’s prevailing perception that it is trying to encourage anarchy and division. It is expected to act like a responsible country that respects the unity and sovereignty of neighboring states, just as it opposes – justifiably – intervention by neighboring states in its affairs.
And fourth, Israel’s past policy toward separatist trends in the world has generally been based on respect for international law and the sovereignty of nations. Unilateral separation of the Kurdish region constitutes a violation of Iraqi law, under which the holding of a referendum on self-determination requires legal procedures that were not observed by Massoud Barzani, the leader in Erbil whose term officially ended in 2013.
Israel did not recognize the unilateral separation of Kosovo in 2008, instead conditioning it on the agreement of the Serbian government and recognition by the United Nations. Why, then, is Israel maintaining a double standard? It needs a balanced and consistent foreign policy based on clear principles, not random reactions.
The Jewish people are champions of liberty and have made many sacrifices to achieve a state of their own. But the difference between the Jews and the Kurds is that the Jews had no choice. The people of the region saw them as enemies and they were forced to take up arms and seize their freedom by force – while respecting UN resolutions. In contrast, the Kurds in Iraq are facing a historic opportunity to build a national entity through cooperation with other Iraqi components while enjoying broad authority within the federal-democratic regime in Iraq that has been in place since the fall of the Baath party.
It is our obligation to tell our friends the Kurds that there is no future for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan without regional cooperation and the consent of the Baghdad government. If the Kurds insist on separation and will continue to march toward an independent state in accordance with international law and with the agreement of Baghdad, similar to the way South Sudan conducted itself, it will certainly find Israel at the top of the list of those who support them and the realization of their national aspirations.
Dr. Masri is an expert in international relations and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.