Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation of 33 Republican Members of Congress that he supports the creation of an independent Kurdish state in what is currently still known as Iraq. Netanyahu is not alone in favoring giving statehood to Iraq’s non-Arab, most prosperous and democratic region – Obama’s VP Joe Biden advocated Kurdish independence when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, only to switch sides when he joined the White House team.
Iraqi Kurdistan, under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is located in the north of Iraq and constitutes the country’s only autonomous region, and a parliamentary democracy. The Kurds consider it one of the four parts of the wished-for Greater Kurdistan, which also includes southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwestern Iran.
And there, in the parts about the Kurds’ claim to parts of Turkey and Iran, is Kurdistan’s most crucial value to Israel’s foreign and security policy: the very existence of an official Kurdish state, with an inevitable future UN membership, would be a black eye to the two Islamic powers that are vying to take over the Middle East: Turkey and Iran.
In both Turkey and Iran, independent Kurds are considered a perpetual fifth column. Indeed, the Kurds operate underground militant groups that actually threatens state security. They are hated and vilified by the regimes in both Ankara and Tehran, and every once in a while they manage to bite the hand that bleeds them.
Erdogan’s Turkey is exceptionally oppressive against its Kurdish citizens, closing down private schools that teach in Kurdish and erasing the words Kurds and Kurdistan from dictionaries and history books: officially there are no Kurds in Turkey, instead they are only referred to as Mountain Turks.
Kurds have suffered a long history of discrimination in Iran as well. In a report released in 2008, Amnesty International said that Kurds have been a particular target of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Kurds’ “social, political and cultural rights have been repressed, as have their economic aspirations.” Iran executes Kurdish political prisoners, mostly activists, writers, and teachers.
All of which is music to Israeli ears. In July, when Turkish President Erdogan attacked Israel’s security policy on the Temple Mount, Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “It would be interesting to see what Erdogan would say to the [Greek] residents of northern Cyprus or to the Kurds. Erdogan is the last one who can preach to Israel.”
On its face this was a variant on folks who live in glass houses and how careful they must be not to encourage stone throwing. But there was a deeper level to Netanyahu’s scorn: Kurdistan has been Israel’s secret bulwark against both Iranian and Turkish imperialism in the region – in other words, a strong and independent Kurdistan means a strong and independent Israel.
This is nothing new. According to former senior Mossad official Eliezer Tsafrir, from 1963 to 1975, Israel posted military advisers at the headquarters of Kurdish rebel leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, and trained and supplied the Kurdish militias with firearms and field and anti-aircraft artillery.
According to Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah (Kurdistan: The Next Flashpoint Between Turkey, Iraq, and the Syrian Revolt), during the First Gulf War, Jewish organizations launched lobbying campaigns worldwide to aid Iraqi Kurdistan and stop the Saddam Hussein government’s persecutions there. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called on US Secretary of State James Baker to defend the Kurds.
According to Israeli newspapers, dozens of Israelis with a background in elite combat training have been working for private Israeli companies in northern Iraq, helping Kurds there establish elite antiterror units. Reports say that the Kurdish government contracted Israeli security and communications companies to train Kurdish security forces and provide them with advanced equipment.
Israeli military industrial companies are in business partnership with the Kurdish government, says Neriah, providing strategic consultation on economic and security issues. “Tons of equipment, including motorcycles, tractors, sniffer dogs, systems to upgrade Kalashnikov rifles, bulletproof vests, and first-aid items have been shipped to Iraq’s northern region, with most products stamped ‘Made in Israel.’”
Netanyahu doesn’t speak often about Israel’s support for Iraqi Kurdistan – the last time he elaborated on the subject was in 2014. The Kurds, too, underplay their Israeli hand because, let’s face it, they live in the Middle East where Jews are still not welcome in most places. But establishing a solid, second Western beachhead smack on Turkey’s and Iran’s back doors, could do a lot to curb their enthusiasm.