Netanyahu’s call for Kurdish independence sparks questions about a unified Iraq

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 1, 2014 

Mideast Iraq

An Iraqi Kurd helps block a road during a demonstration against the fuel crisis in Irbil, Iraq, Sunday, June 29, 2014.

UNCREDITED — AP

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— Israel, warily watching the advance of Islamist terrorists across Iraq, appears to be inching toward supporting independence for Kurdistan, a position that would put it at odds with the United States over the partition of Iraq.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for it. And while Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, backpedaled from the comment Monday, analysts here say Netanyahu is just recognizing what is already taking place.

Ofra Bengio, a professor at Tel Aviv University who has written two books about the Kurds, said Netanyahu is cannily navigating the changing Middle East.

“The Obama administration still believes it is possible to keep Iraq unified and integrated, and reality tells a different story,” she said. “Israel is aware of this reality.”

Netanyahu’s call Sunday for Kurdish independence came just days after Israel bought a delivery of oil directly from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. This is possible because of another rapid shift: Kurds have expanded into oil-rich territory in Iraq, and Turkey has mended ties with the Iraqi Kurdish government, even allowing the Kurds to export oil via Turkey, bypassing the Iraqi government.

Israel was Kurdistan’s first customer. By accepting the oil in the southern port of Ashkelon, Israel gave financial backing to the Kurdish region. The United States has disapproved of direct Kurdish oil sales, fearing that bypassing the central government in Baghdad will only accelerate the crumbling of a united Iraq.

“It is upon us to support the international efforts to strengthen Jordan and support the Kurds’ aspiration for independence,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

Israel and the Kurds have a long history, based on mutual suspicion of the region’s Arab nations. However, the sale of oil and Netanyahu’s comments Sunday broke the tradition of keeping the cooperation covert and hinted at a more assertive Israeli position on the issue of Kurdish independence.

The current overtures between Israel and the Kurds are the extension of a long tradition, according to Bengio. Israel helped train Kurdish rebels in the 1960s and is home to about 200,000 Jews of Kurdish descent. This community organized relief to the Kurds during the 1991 Gulf War.

“We are both small nations, and we are both de-legitimized in the region,” Bengio explained. “I think there’s an affinity between our two people. And we think the Kurds are a force of stability. . . . And if you add now oil, it also adds economic benefits as well.”

Kurds are not the only parties looking to redraw the map of the Middle East. The group that had been known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced Sunday that it had declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that would stretch across the Muslim world and was dropping the nation designations from its title. The Islamic State has titled one of its promotional videos “The End of Sykes-Picot,” a reference to the secret 1916 agreement between England and France that carved up the Middle East into its modern borders.

Shlomo Brom, former director of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army, said Netanyahu has a countervision: to help break up Iraq, and possibly Syria, into small, weak states that would pose no threat to Israel.

Brom said the attempt to connect to the Kurds recalls the 1950s and 1960s, when Israel built a “peripheral alliance” with non-Arab entities in the Middle East, including the Kurds, Turkey and Iran. The strategy might not work, he cautioned.

“The assumption that we have a basic interest with the non-Arabs against Arabs is outdated,” Brom said. “For example, Netanyahu believes the main threat Israel is facing is Iran, a non-Arab state in the periphery of the Middle East. While at the same time there are some Arab parties who are not full allies but half allies _ Jordan, Egypt, and to some extent the Gulf states. So this dichotomy of the Arab world versus the non-Arab parties . . . doesn’t reflect the complicated reality of the Middle East.”

Israelis of Kurdish ancestry were ecstatic over Netanyahu’s statement.

“I jumped out of bed,” said Yosef Rahamim, 74, who immigrated to Israel at age 9 yet still watches Kurdish news and TV shows via satellite dish from his home in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi. “They are waiting for us. They say ‘You are the big Israel and we are the small Israel.’ They were so happy.”

Rahamim recently retired after 30 years from his post as the head of the Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel. During his tenure he accompanied three delegations of Kurdish visitors on agricultural education trips in Israel, the most recent in 2012.

Unlike Israelis who hail from Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran or Syria, Kurdish Israelis maintain contact with their homeland. This makes Netanyahu’s comment all the more exciting, as it concerns a region they can still visit.

The feeling is mutual, according to Arif Bawecani, an Iranian Kurd living in political exile in Norway. Bawecani heads the Kurdistan Independent Party and said he is connected with Kurdish people across the region. He said Kurdish newspapers, magazines, Facebook and Twitter feeds are all flooded with photos of Israeli flags and Netanyahu’s face.

“I think all Kurdish organizations have written thank you very much for Mr. Netanyahu,” Bawecani told McClatchy via Skype.

“We have good respect for the people of Palestine. But the same problem Palestine has with Israel we have with four countries,” he said, referring to Kurdish populations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey that have pressed claims for autonomy. “I hope the whole world will support Kurdistan.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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