Israel Behind an Independent Kurdish State

As Israeli Foreign Minister and President tell the US to accept Kurdish secession, Israel strengthens its ties with the Kurds.

Ari Soffer ,

Kurdish Peshmerga forces make their way to Ki
Kurdish Peshmerga forces make their way to Ki

An independent Kurdish state is "a foregone conclusion", according to Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman - and Israeli experts say the Jewish state would be one of the first to recognize Kurdistan should it declare its independence.

Liberman's comments came at a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, during which Liberman also offered to help Arab states combat Islamist extremists, particularly from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), whose successes in Iraq and Syria are being viewed in surrounding states with considerable alarm.

Western nations have also looked on with unease as modern post-colonial state borders rapidly evaporate in the face of sectarian tensions, exacerbated by ISIS's ambitions for an Islamic mega-state. 

But for the Kurds, the crisis has been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen their own position, in a region which more often than not has dealt them a bad hand. Kurdish militias in Syria have managed to mobilize and seize control of parts of the country's north, and more recently the Peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq rushed to fill the vacuum left by fleeing Iraqi security forces in regions such as Kirkuk.

"Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion," Lieberman's spokesman quoted him as telling Kerry, according to Reuters.

Liberman's comments came a day after similar sentiments were expressed by outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres to US President Barack Obama, during his White House visit Wednesday.

Reporting on their conversation, Peres said he told Obama that "reunifying" Iraq would be impossible without "massive" foreign military intervention.

"The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women," Peres told reporters.

Israel's relationship with the Kurds - who at 30 million are the Middle East's largest stateless nation - is a complicated one. Although relations have often been good, particularly with Kurds in Iraq, the Jewish state's traditionally strong ties with Turkey (which occupies much of the territory claimed by Kurds as their homeland) has been a source of contention. 

One of the other barriers to open relations between the two nations is the Kurds' own nervousness to publicly accept Israeli help in a region brimming with aggressive anti-Zionism. Their position was precarious enough as it was, with their homeland occupied by the likes of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

But that may have shifted with the deterioration in ties between Israel and Turkey during the administration of Ankara's Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition, the crumbling of the Syrian and Iraqi states have strengthened Kurdish autonomy more than at any point in recent memory.

And experts say Israeli-Kurdish ties have been going on quietly for a long time.

Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad station chief in Kurdish northern Iraq, said the Kurds had requested the contacts remain secret for political reasons.

"We'd love it to be out in the open, to have an embassy there, to have normal relations. But we keep it clandestine because that’s what they want," he told Reuters.

Cooperation between Israel and Iraqi Kurds took place under the Saddam regime in particular for example, which included Israeli military training for Kurdish guerrillas in return for help for fleeing Iraqi Jews on their way to the Jewish homeland, as well as spying on the Iraqi regime.

Speaking to Israeli Army Radio, senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad echoed Tsafrir's sentiments, and hinted clandestine ties were still ongoing.

"Our silence - in public, at least – is best. Any unnecessary utterance on our part can only harm them (Kurds)," he stated.

The recent pro-Kurdish rhetoric comes just days after more practical measures supporting the KRG's push towards greater autonomy. Israel recently became one of the first nations to purchase oil from Kurdistan delivered independently of the Iraqi government in Baghdad - something the US opposes but which the KRG sees as crucial to its own security in the face of the chaos engulfing the region.

According to Ofra Bengio, an Iraq expert at Tel Aviv University and the author of two books on the Kurds, that delivery is not an isolated agreement but part of a wider strategic relationship between Israel and the Kurds.

"I certainly think that the moment (Kurdish President Masoud) Barzani declares independence, these ties would be upgraded into open relations," she told Reuters. "It depends on the Kurds."