Most of Israel’s major allies in the Middle East keep their ties to the Jewish State a secret. This is standard operating procedure for countries like Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt and Jordan with whom Israel has signed treaties but whose citizens still harbor extreme anti-Semitic sentiment and anti-Israel politics.
The same also goes to some extent for Iraqi Kurdistan (or the Kurdistan Regional Government – KRG), although anti-Semitism and extremism in general is far less present among Kurds than their Arab neighbors.
In fact, Israel has had security ties with Iraqi Kurds for decades. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the prospect of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has enamored Israelis with the possibility of a new strategic ally. Most experts assume there are high-ranking communications between the two governments right now, but are Kurds as eager as Israelis to come out as linked?
“I’d say they are eager,” says Professor Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center. “I can’t talk about all the Kurds but many are very eager, including some from Iraq and some from Turkey. Their problem is that they feel it is too dangerous to come out publicly.”
Bengio highlights the main issue for Kurds – they might contend with accusations of treachery from Iraqi Arabs, thus creating another point of contention. “On the one hand they want to be public but on the other hand they are reluctant.”
Bengio also notes northern Syria’s Kurdish population. The northeastern pocket of Syria has gained de facto autonomy with the collapse of the country in its civil war, giving what is known as the “West” (Rojava) in Kurdish a taste of independence.
Links with Israel are, however, much more elusive with Kurds in Syria. “They don’t have too many links” explains Bengio, but she says “We (in Israel) should be very much interested in developing a relationship with them. Some Kurdish groups in Rojava are very much interested in developing relations with Israel”
For decades, it was not just Kurdish concerns of Arab enmity that kept Israel and Kurdistan quiet – it was also Israel’s alliance with Turkey. Israel is believed by some to have had a major hand in capturing Abdullah Ocalan, the former leader of the oft-labeled terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). During a several-year war with Turkey, 40,000 people are said to have died in fighting and PKK attacks. With the capture of Ocalan – who now sits in a Turkish prison – Turkey and its Kurdish citizens have entered into a years-long reconciliation process.
The PKK though has not yet earned legitimacy in the eyes of the world, much less Turkey. Rojava’s de facto army - the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) - has been linked to the PKK in the past and thus represents an intolerable thorn in the side of Turkey even today.
So, would linking up with the Rojavans represent a problem for Israel vis-à-vis Turkey?
“I think that this is a myth that doesn’t hold water any longer,” outlines Bengio. For one, the PKK are not launching attacks anymore. Two, the peace process (with Turkey) has been going for a long time now.”
Beyond Kurdish relations with the Turks, Israel does not have to worry about sacrificing anything with Turkey, which has unilaterally severed the relationship with Israel.
“Thirdly, Turkey is coming out so openly in support of Hamas that we should ask, ‘Why should we sit quietly and be afraid of even talking to these people?’”
“We were worried about Turkey and they used to blame us for making the Kurds (in Iraq) a state or Arab countries would accuse us of using the Kurds as a ploy.”
Still, Bengio says Israel is equally eager to bring the relationship out into the open.
“For a long time we were very happy it was quiet and we are still happy. Even though Netanyahu said they deserve a state, he didn’t address relations or how deep they are. Says it would be a positive development. No one has come out and said anything.
Bengio then alludes to a mutual interest of both Israel and KRG, that Israel get closer to Kurds beyond just Iraq.
“Fourth, it is also of interest to the Kurds in the KRG (in Iraq) that we develop relations with other Kurds as well.”
When Arutz Sheva asked if that meant that a possible Syria partition might change the dynamics of diplomacy in the Middle East and be good for both Jerusalem and Erbil, she hinted that it might be, but that the only thing we can say with certainty right now is that Syria will indeed fragment.
“It is a fait accompli. I do not see how anyone will hold Syria together, or Iraq together or Yemen or Libya.”
“It’s not that it’s (necessarily) positive. There is nothing there that Israel can affect or change.”
When asked if fragmentation could create several states who would not align with Sunni Arab states or becomes satellites that would fall into Iran’s orbit, Bengio said we are living in the time of a “paradox.”
“It is a paradox in that Sunni and Arab worlds are aligning with Israel. It does not depend so much on whether they are Sunni or Shiite, but if they are moderate or extremist Sunnis, or moderate or extremist Shiites.”
When asked if last year’s Kurdish oil shipment to Israel was indicative that Kurdistan wanted to lay the ground work for a more open relationship or at the least strengthen economic ties ahead of such an announcement, Bengio said that the Kurds were also restricted about being public with economic connections, hence the strong denials from Erbil. However, she said that Israel gives Kurdistan a degree of reassurance while being pressured by Iraqi Arabs, Iran and the Turks.
“They also want us to be very strong in regards to Iran. It gives them certain strategic depth.”