Why Israel Wants an Independent Kurdistan

Benjamin Netanyahu Hopes for Enemy-of-My-Enemies Ally

getty images

By Yossi Alpher

Published July 09, 2014, issue of July 11, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the early spring of 1975, the Israeli-Kurdish alliance and the secret Israeli presence in Iraqi Kurdistan came to an abrupt end when the shah of Iran and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein reached an agreement terminating their conflict. Israel, dependent on Iran for access to Kurdistan, had to leave. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reported quietly on the event to a Knesset committee, where one member said to him, “I presume our aid emerged from a desire to help a struggling minority.” Rabin, not known for his sentimentality, reportedly completed the thought: “Because we’re Jews.”

That was the context in which many veterans of the Israeli security community whose résumés include a spell of contact with the Kurds back in the 1960s and ’70s reacted on June 29, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his support for an independent Kurdistan in what used to be northern Iraq. To this day, Israelis and Kurds maintain strong links based on their unique status as non-Arab peoples striving for independence in the “Arab” Middle East.

The context of Netanyahu’s speech is equally important. In outlining far-reaching new priorities in his regional strategic thinking, his point of departure was the spread of extremist Islam and the collapse of Iraq. Kurdistan was almost a footnote.

A word about those new strategic priorities: Of the challenges currently facing Israel, Iran is now relegated by Netanyahu to the bottom of the list, and ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — to the top. Gone, in discussing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, are the Holocaust comparisons and the threats of Israel taking matters into its own hands. At the head of the list are now the need to shore up Jordan’s defenses to the east, deploy the Israel Defense Forces in the Jordan Valley indefinitely and — capitalizing on the search for the three kidnapped and murdered yeshiva students — ensure that Israeli security forces enjoy unlimited freedom of movement inside any future Palestinian state. (Netanyahu’s intrusive new security demands regarding the West Bank are unacceptable to Palestinians, thereby serving his real priorities there; but that’s a separate issue.)

Thus it was in the ISIS connection that Netanyahu recognized an independent Kurdistan. Here we note, for the record, that a Kurdish referendum on independence is months away, and that the Kurds almost certainly did not ask for Israeli recognition.

So why recognize Kurdistan now? Iraq is collapsing and fragmenting. The likely beneficiaries are fanatic Sunni Arabs represented by ISIS, but also Iran, whose support for the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and army is now vital to their survival. The Kurds have taken advantage of the confusion and disarray to shore up their control of territory and energy resources around Kirkuk that they have long claimed. Neighboring Turkey’s support, which one can’t imagine will be forthcoming, is far more important to them than distant Israel’s.

The Obama administration left Iraq in 2011 after committing to its success as a unified democracy. Now the administration appears determined to hold the country together artificially, even if this means empowering Iran more than the 2003 American invasion and occupation foolishly did. (Remember Saddam Hussein? Along with all his faults, he kept Iran out of the Arab Middle East.) Israel and some of its Arab neighbors prefer a fragmented Iraq that thwarts Iran’s grand design of a “Shiite arc” linking Iran’s Iraqi and Syrian allies with Shiite Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

This, at the realpolitik level, explains the timing of Netanyahu’s unsolicited support for Kurdish independence. It is first and foremost a statement of protest to Washington regarding its Iraq unity policy, following advice by the likes of outgoing President Shimon Peres to let Iraq stew in the juices of its disunity.

The price Israel pays for a fragmented Iraq is that ISIS will continue to take root in its new “Islamic State” in what used to be northwest Iraq and northeast Syria. This explains Netanyahu’s new concern with the security of Jordan and the Jordan Valley. An independent Kurdistan may be useful in countering Sunni Islamist fanatics — the Kurds are moderate Sunnis who promote women’s rights and democracy — but the Kurds have more urgent things to do than to pick a fight with ISIS outside of their mountain redoubt.

The post-Ottoman Levant as we have known it for nearly 100 years is gone. Kurdistan and the Islamic State are the first new independent entities to emerge. Jerusalem appears to be dealing with this situation better than Washington.

Yossi Alpher is the author of “Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies,” forthcoming in 2015 from Rowman & Littlefield .


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.