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Why does Israel support Kurdish independence?

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There are probably very few issues on which PM Netanyahu of Likud, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and Labour party MK Ksenia Svetlova agree. But as residents of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) (as well those who live in the disputed territories) vote on whether they want “the Kurdistan region and the Kurdish areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state”, all three Israelis have come out publicly in support of Kurdish independence.

The cross party support – which also includes the late Shimon Peres and popular former Likud MK Gideon Saar, who said he hoped Israel would be the first country to recognise Kurdistan – seems starker still when compared to regional and international positions. Nearly every regional state, global power and the UN has voiced its opposition to its timing, arbitrariness and insensitivity to the legally disputed areas between predominately Kurdish and predominately Iraqi-Arab lands: The US claims that the vote detracts from efforts in countering ISIS, of which the Kurds play a major role; Syria, Iran and Turkey fear the reaction of their own Kurdish minorities; while Russia, the UK, Saudi Arabia contest any unilateral measures outside of the Iraqi constitution, which grants no right of secession and Article 1 guarantees “the unity of Iraq”.

There are several strategic reasons as to why many in Israel support Kurdish independence.

An extension of Israel’s “Periphery Doctrine”

Israel has enjoyed good cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds since the 1960s in a relationship which grew out of the “periphery alliance” strategy adopted by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. This strategy called for Israel to develop close alliances with non-Arab states (such as Turkey, pre-revolutionary Iran and Ethiopia) to counteract the opposition of Arab states to the existence of Israel. This strategy has been given new impetus since the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war and Iran’s growing influence, creating new challenges for Israeli military and political leaders to confront.

A friend on Iran’s doorstep

At a recent Washington Institute event, IDF Maj. Gen. Yair Golan said that looking at the instability in the region, “a solid, stable, cohesive, Kurdish entity in the midst of this [regional] quagmire is not a bad idea”. Indeed, one of Israel’s foremost interests is preventing the emergence of a powerful Shiite crescent linking Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. An independent Kurdish state could act as an effective military bulwark against a potential Iranian land corridor which stretches through northern Iraq, as well as against the dangerous anti-Israeli forces emanating from both Sunni and Shi‘a Islamist radicals. An Israeli intelligence presence in Iraqi Kurdistan reportedly allowed Israel to carry out covert operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Economic ties

Israel reportedly serves as a conduit for Kurdish oil exports to Europe and according to the Financial Times Israel imported 19 million barrels of Kurdish oil between May and August in 2015, or 77 per cent of the total demand for that period. Such activities provided a vital financial flow to the KRG capital as well as contribute to the Kurd’s war efforts against ISIS. Israel also reportedly played a role in the 2009 KRG Strategic Plan for Agriculture. In 2013, Yedioth Ahronoth revealed that a high-level Kurdish delegation led by then KRG Vice President Kosrat Rasul and Minister of Agriculture Jamil Sleiman Haider, visited the Afikim kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, with the aim to “enhance cooperation between Israel and the KRG, and explore the possibility of tapping into Israeli expertise in fields like agriculture, poultry farming, and the production of dairy products”.

Beyond realpolitik

The public support from senior Israeli leaders has put KRG President Masoud Barzani in a dilemma. While Israeli technology in the fields of agriculture, security and oil exportation can provide an infant Kurdish state the necessary ingredients to grow and become as self-sustaining as possible and Israeli support could theoretically help convince the US of the benefits to an independent Kurdish state, there has been some political domestic opposition to Israel’s interest in Kurdish affairs.

While it is unclear to what extent Netanyahu’s statements were the result of well thought out integrated staff work spanning various ministries or was simply an off the cuff remark, much of the strategic, security and economic relations currently enjoyed between the sides could theoretically be maintained under the status quo. Moreover, there is no reason why the strategic advantages enjoyed by both sides cannot continue if the Kurdish region remains in a unified Iraq, but strengthened with more powers and permanent borders.

However, to fully understand Israel’s position therefore one needs to look beyond the realpolitik. Rather many Israeli leaders are motivated by the historical and non-spatial shared memory both peoples have of long struggles for national independence, national movements which grew out of destitution and genocide; and a struggle to gain acceptance of their rights to self-determination from their neighbours and from the international community. When many Israelis look at the Kurds they imagine themselves 70 years ago. As Labour MK Svetlova wrote, “like the Jewish people, who hoped and prayed for world support in 1947, the Kurds are now seeking global support. Nearly 70 years ago the US claimed Israel’s declaration of Independence was premature as well”.

Samuel Nurding is a research analyst at BICOM and assistant editor of Fathom.