The glue in the relationship between Kurds and Israelis is the principle, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Of course, the enemies in this case are the Baghdad government and the ISIS Caliphate. The ties between the two peoples in modern history preceded the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but were strong around the time of the Kurdish rebellion in 1961. Kurdish activist Ismet Sherif Vanly met in 1964 with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres. In response, Israel set up a permanent representative to Iraqi Kurdistan. While the details of the relationship between the Israelis and the Kurds were kept mostly secret, Israel provided humanitarian aid for Kurds, as well as arms and ammunition and military training. In 1975, after the Algiers agreement between Iran and Iraq, the Kurdish rebellion was repressed, and relations between Israel and the Kurds appeared to subside, but continued a few years later. More recently, an article appeared in Yediot Aharanot about Israel’s training the Kurdish military forces. According to one source, a company owned by former head of the Mossad Danny Yatom and by renowned spook Shlomi Michaels consulted the Kurdish government, and there have been shipments of military supplies from Israel to Northern Iraq.
In 2012, Le Figaro reported that the Mossad was recruiting Iranian exiles in Kurdistan to train them, as a strategy to sabotage Iran’s nuclear development. The story came from an anonymous source in Baghdad. In 2006, the BBC’s Newsnight reported there was evidence that the Israelis were providing military training to members of a Kurdish militia. Israeli security experts denied the report, insisting that such training could not take place without the knowledge of the Kurdish authorities. In 2010, Lebanon arrested three Kurds on the charge of working with Israeli intelligence. The three belonged to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group fighting for an independent Kurdish state.
Eliezer Tsafrir is a former Mossad operative who has fond memories of leading covert Israeli operations in Kurdistan in 1975, when the rebellion of Mustafa Barzani was being crushed by Saddam Hussein. In his memoir, “Ani Kurdi,” or “I am a Kurd,” Tsafrir recalls the “proud, fierce and warm mountain people.” He told Tablet, “It was a love story. Under the Barzanis, Jews in Kurdistan did not suffer. On the contrary, they were friends. Ties with Israel ran deep and began when Mustafa Barzani sent emissaries to Israel through Europe and told us Kurds, like Jews, were ignored by everybody and needed help.” Tsafrir ran training corps for Kurdish soldiers. With the treaty between Iran and Iraq, the Kurdish rebels had to make a run for it. “We were in a big hurry to burn papers,” said Tsafrir. “I had to get out of here before the Iraqi army turned me into a kebab.” Tsafrir expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of an independent Kurdistan and said, “I want to be Israel’s first Consul General in Erbil.”
The Kurds might have been a step closer to realizing their dream of independence if the plan of then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, had been implemented. In 2006, Senator Biden wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Unity through Autonomy in Iraq.” he introduced the article with an analogy to the Bosnian war treaty ten years earlier. The Dayton Accords divided the region into a Serbian, Croatian and Muslim territory, each with separate armies. The armies were not necessary, because the peace treaty was a success. Biden criticized the Bush administration’s “profound strategic misjudgments” in hanlding Iraq and said the country should have a loose central government with separate territories for Kurds, Sunnis and Shiite Muslims. Biden concluded, “It is clear that President Bush does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq. Rather, he hopes to prevent defeat and pass the problem along to his successor. Meanwhile, the frustration of America is mounting so fast that Congress might end up mandating a rapid pullout even at the risk of precipitating chaos and civil war that becomes a regional war.” Countering criticism that dividing Iraq into three areas might increase sectarianism and lead to further violence, then Senator Biden responded that forcing a strong central government would have a worse effect.