Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Goodbye Washington, Hello Kurdistan

Recent calls by Israeli leaders for Kurdish independence could - and should - mark the start of a very different kind of foreign policy by Jerusalem.
Published: Monday, June 30, 2014 11:47 AM


The past few days have seen Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and President Shimon Peres all issuing calls to support Kurdish independence as a counterweight to the growing threat of Islamism in the Middle East.

This, after Israel took concrete steps to strengthen its relationship with the increasingly confident autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, ignoring US opposition and buying oil directly through the Kurds whilst bypassing Baghdad.

All of this is good news, whatever way you look at it. 

On the one hand, as I have advocated for a long time, an alliance with the Kurds - along with other indigenous non-Arab peoples in the Middle East - is both in Israel's interests and a moral imperative given our shared battle against Arab territorial and cultural imperialism in this region. 

The modern state boundaries constructed in the Middle East and North Africa served to cement Arab hegemony while disenfranchising other indigenous groups - including Kurds, Assyrians, Copts, Amazigh (Berbers), Jews and others. 

Even the grudging acquiescence to an independent Jewish state by Imperial Britain came only after a long, stubborn and bloody militant struggle for Hebrew liberation. And even then, as Menachem Begin points out in his book The Revolt, the manner in which the British "withdrawal" was carried out (directly aiding the Arab Legion in its subsequent invasion, imposing restrictions on Jews and even actively attacking Jewish fighters) was designed to maintain control indirectly post-facto by ensuring a massacre which would then "require" subsequent international intervention and "protection" of some kind. Of course, such (re)intervention would be for the sake of the "threatened Jewish minority" - never mind that they were responsible for perpetuating our "minority status" in the first place via their draconian restrictions on Jewish growth. 

Interestingly (but not coincidentally), this arrangement did not empower the Arab people, but merely select groups, factions, tribes or families, who could be more easily controlled by one outside power or another - hence the pent-up rage which finally exploded in the social and political unrest and uprisings we have seen in recent years.

The "status quo", as it is, has always been about control and subjugation of the people of this region by our former "masters", or by aspiring new ones (Putin is already smacking his lips). This interpretation goes some way to explaining both Washington's (or more generally western) opposition to the Ceyhan pipeline and lukewarm (at best) approach to Kurdish independence, even as it fanatically insists on partitioning this tiny piece of land west of the Jordan River into two totally unviable states. 

Both a strong, truly independent Israel and a strong, truly independent Kurdistan undermine the status-quo which conveniently serves the interests of the "great powers".

Kurdish "autonomy" or "rights"? Sure, as long as their resources can still be controlled via Baghdad or Ankara respectively. Jewish independence? Well, OK then, if you must - but as long as you don't go overboard and cause trouble in the region by insisting on controlling too much of your native homeland, thereby triggering more inconvenient hissy fits from the Arab behemoth.

It also helps understand why western states are still hyperventilating about the potential breakup of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shia states or enclaves, despite the fact that that would be the most peaceful resolution for the people of the country. Sure, forcing them together always results in one group massacring or oppressing the other, but that is a price worth paying to preserve this dependable, easily-contained and digestible status-quo. 

On the other hand, the fact that Jerusalem dared to defy Washington by buying oil directly from the Kurds, and is even urging the Obama administration to rethink its conceptualization of the Middle East, is in itself significant. It could indicate that the Obama administration's antagonism towards the Jewish state has, in the long-term, been a positive thing, by at least partially weaning us off of our slavish acquiescence to American foreign policy and geopolitical paradigms which are woefully out of place in the Middle East.  That acquiescence was manifested, among other things, in our inexplicable addiction to a "status quo" which preserves a regional balance of power that may serve American and European interests, but for Israel is merely an edifice of continual hostility and tension. 

Remember, it was not that long ago that the same Netanyahu was groveling to the Hamas-supporting Turkish tyrant Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the behest of Obama. Back then, I warned that by illogically clinging to our "alliance" with Turkey, despite the Erdogan regime's obvious antagonism, Israel risked ending up on the wrong side of history.

Yet while any shift away from this status-quo-thinking is great, we should not get carried away just yet.

First of all, we are yet to see whether the Netanyahu government will follow through practically and move beyond mere words and a few barrels of oil.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, it is important to note that if a paradigm shift is being made then it is being done through the narrow prism of realpolitik. 

If you read between the lines, nothing fundamental has changed in the way Israel views itself: Bibi, for example, is still talking about survival and security - he just can't look beyond it. He only came out in support of an independent Kurdistan after the security establishment began ringing alarm bells about the threat to national security posed by ISIS.

This should not be surprising, since this apparent shift in Israeli foreign policy is almost certainly due to Liberman's influence. The foreign minister is a hard-nosed political realist, and has long advocated looking beyond the "special relationship" with the US to build a healthier, less naive and more diverse range of alliances - from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Far East. Obama's surly and unreliable approach to America's "closest ally" no doubt helped persuade the Prime Minister - who has traditionally reveled in the "special relationship" and is himself American-educated - to begrudgingly follow Liberman's lead.

But while Liberman is indeed correct, and while international relations should always be guided first and foremost by concrete national interests and not abstract moral crusades, we must not forget that the Jewish people does indeed have a moral mission - and one which, crucially, will ultimately serve the interests not only of our people but the entire region. 

Hebrew independence is the first crack in the dam of the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East - and look how it has prospered in just 66 years, even under attack! Similarly, since the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam, the Kurdish Regional Government has been the only region of Iraq that has genuinely prospered, while the rest of the country lurched between political instability and all-out sectarian war.

Encouraging our neighbors to follow suit and supporting them as they pursue their own paths (not one imposed from the outside) towards national liberation will, in the long-term, serve all of our interests, by building a Middle East whose future is determined by the people who have lived here for thousands of years - not by the whims of foreign leaders and boys' clubs who impose foreign political paradigms on us at any cost.