Demonstrators with Kurdish flags
Demonstrators with Kurdish flagsReuters

Israel trained Kurdish fighters In the 1960s and 1970s to fight the Iraqi government, and in 2004 then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly met with Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, with Israeli-Kurdish relations an old open secret.

But with Iran’s influence on how Iraq fights Islamic State (ISIS) and Turkey becoming more economically involved with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its capital Irbil, are those ties going to fade away? 

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), tells Arutz Sheva she is not so  convinced that we have seen the end of ties with the Kurds.

“What I can say is that the Kurds still hold a favorable view of Israel based on its assistance in the past, and also see in many respects similarities between the Kurdish struggle for independence and the Jewish struggle," she said. "Also, the pro-Western orientation of the KRG is a good basis for Kurdish-Israeli relations.”

She did admit there was a balancing act now, especially with Turkey, but she reasons there is no evidence just yet that Turkey is putting pressure on the KRG to make a definitive break with the Israelis.

“One should bear in mind that the KRG is very much dependent on its neighbors, Turkey, but also Iran, so that there is a limit to how far its relations with Israel can develop," Lindenstrauss said. 

She continued saying "I think that Turkish dominance over the KRG has been a fact for several years now. Although you would think that because of the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations that would have had an influence on developments in Kurdish-Israeli relations, I would say that in fact the influence has been minimal.”

According to the researcher, Turkey is significantly invested in Iraqi Kurdistan despite decades of conflict between Ankara and Kurdish national movements in southeastern Turkey. Just last month, Turkey approved a $500 million loan to the Kurdish government to pay government salaries.

So are the Israelis missing out on a chance to equally help the Kurds in the fight against ISIS while Turkey moves in to buy more influence in Irbil? 

“Turkey has by now a lot of vested interest in the success of the KRG and Israel cannot in any scenario assist the Kurds in the scope the Turks can, and hence I think Israel acknowledges Turkey’s dominance and the ways it does assist the KRG are in a large degree in line with Turkey’s interests," she said.

On the subject of defense assistance, Lindenstrauss says she only relies on open sources, so she cannot speak to how extensive or minimal any Israeli effort to train or equip the Peshmerga (the KRG’s security forces) in the battle against ISIS. She did emphasize though that Jerusalem might have a token role to play in advocating the Kurds get more military hardware in spite of the fact many Western leaders are already pushing for more arms.

“What the Kurds really need for this is more armament, but it is clear that it would be best if most of this armament will come from Western countries. Israeli officials/commentators can try and make the case for sending more armaments to the Kurds."

So where does Iran come in?

As mentioned, Iran is playing a massive role in Iraq’s counterinsurgency against ISIS. As a result, the Kurdish Regional Government has found itself speaking with Tehran more often than in the past. It is not clear though if Jerusalem is working to put a wedge in that new alliance and try to make more efforts to help the Kurds.

“I don’t know of any official strategy, but it is true that Israel would much prefer that the struggle against ISIS will not lead, or at least not to a great extent, to the strengthening of Iran’s position in the region," Lindenstrauss said. "In this respect it is obvious that Israel has an interest that the Kurds will be successful vis-à-vis ISIS.”

Those new defense ties to Iran and the economic ties to Turkey might not be as influential as some people might speculate. Kurdistan last year sent a tanker toward Israel with a shipment of oil, in spite of Baghdad’s non-recognition of the Israeli government.

After being forced to dock in Texas for months, the shipment finally docked in Israel last week. It could be though that more than being a gesture of good will to the Israelis, it is a statement to Iraq’s central government.

“I think the oil shipments are less about increasing the ties with Israel and more about the realities of the economic needs of the KRG and its political discussions with Baghdad," the expert commented.

Does Israel want to open up a silent economic partnership with Kurdistan as a prelude to a relationship with an independent Kurdish state in the future? For now, Israel is ready to wait it out.

“As Iraq is still defined as an enemy state, Israel is much less concerned compared to other states of trading directly with the KRG, since it anyhow does not receive its oil from other parts of Iraq. Hence, buying or transferring oil from the KRG is not a big risk for Israel.“