Remembered in Kurdistan

The ties between Israel and the Kurds were severed almost in one fell swoop in the mid-1970s, and since then Israel has vanished from the scene. But not the memories.

NORTHERN IRAQ - "Do you want an answer on the record or a real answer?" asked a senior member of the Kurdistan Regional Government. I said I wanted both.

"On the record, I will tell you that the political conditions today do not make it possible to maintain independent relations with Israel. Iraq is one country, which includes Kurdistan, and the decision must come from Baghdad."

The real answer was: "We would like very much to develop relations with you, but not publicly. There are ways you can help us today far more than ever before."

The ties between Israel and the Kurds were severed almost in one fell swoop in the mid-1970s, and since then Israel has vanished from the scene. But not the memories.

At every corner, office, street and booth where I could say I was from Israel, the response was a thumbs-up, sometimes with both thumbs, or the word "brothers," spoken in English. Some spoke of a feeling of betrayal or abandonment, others as though they had lost family.

At every opportunity, someone spoke longingly about a Jewish friend or neighbor who had emigrated to Israel, and one person even had images from Israel as his screen saver.

The memories and nostalgia for friendship with Israel are now awaiting revival because the list of needs in Kurdistan is very long: an infrastructure for banks and insurance companies; agricultural technology of the sort Israel rushes to sell every fraction of a tribe in Africa, the Caucasus and East Asia; delegation exchanges of physicians and academics; scholarships for students from the University of Sulaimaniya and Salah al-Din University in Erbil; donations of books and medicines so it will no longer be necessary to buy only substandard medicines from the countries of the region; and solar technology, which will save the expensive fuel that Iraq is not supplying in sufficient quantities.

True, there will be no ribbon-cutting ceremonies here when an Israeli project is launched because Kurdistan is part of Iraq, even if its citizens detest the Baghdad regime. Kurdistan receives its budget from the Iraqi budget, and the oil and gas for cars are, in the meantime, arriving from Iraq, too. The Kurds want to maintain their ties with Iraq because that is the entry and departure gate for the Kurdish economy and an alternative if the Turks should close the gate. The Kurds are perforce also "friends" of Syria because of the suppressed Kurdish majority that lives there. Accordingly, no public hobnobbing with Israel is possible in these circumstances.

Israel will not be able to make propaganda capital out of the fact that it is aiding the Kurds, and Foreign Ministry officials will not be able to record the relations in their periodic reports. But the Kurds will record them.

Israel, which always sought friends in the world and did not balk at friends of the corrupt and criminal type - from South America to despots in the former Soviet Union - chose cynically to distance itself from the Kurds, of all people. Israel now fears that renewing the ties with the Kurds will harm its strategic relations with Turkey, which, as a matter of fact, is doing very good business with Kurdistan: Hundreds of Turkish commercial firms have investments there.

Nor does Israel want to clash with American interests. Washington views the Kurds' ambitions for a federation as an effort to undermine Iraqi unity - Washington's great goal. This is the same Washington that doesn't yet know who is a friend and who an enemy in Iraq, but is conveniently ignoring the Kurds and even their request for an American military base to be built in Kurdistan.

Israel is also examining the "profit" it would gain from renewing ties with the Kurds, and is not convinced that the step will be bigger than an antenna to eavesdrop on Iranian or Iraqi whisperings from the mountain peaks of Kurdistan. As usual, these are the small Israeli accounts.

But ties with the Kurds cannot be based on accounting. They must be based on investment in future commodities, and particularly on that beautiful friendship of the past, which remains alive in Kurdistan. Israel, which has been adept at selling its distress and its need, and demanded that the world put aside considerations based on vested interests, is suddenly suffering from amnesia.