Regardless of where Iraq’s neighbors and international players stand on the controversial issue of Kurdish independence — almost all are against it — Israel’s seemingly sympathetic attitude is both poisonous and duplicitous. Nothing would serve Israel’s interests more than for this wounded region to be sucked into a fresh cycle of turmoil and violence. Netanyahu and his far-right allies know very well that a unilateral Kurdish decision to secede from Iraq, in the absence of an agreement over a number of contentious issues least of which is the future of oil-rich Kirkuk province, would trigger a civil war likely to spill over.
The Kurdish people, scattered over large areas in northern and northeastern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria, do have a legitimate case. They were denied their own state when the victorious imperial powers of the First World War carved up the Levant following the defeat and subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire. That process, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, also paved the way for the creation of Israel in Palestine more than two decades later. But while the Sunni Kurds have always lived on their historic lands, European Jews were encouraged to emigrate and colonize a land that was never theirs.
By supporting Kurdish statehood, Israel hopes to steer the region in a new direction, and by extension encourage other ethnic and religious groups in the region to seek to emulate the Kurdish example. By deliberately seeking to dismantle the existing multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation states, Israel’s quest to be recognized as a purely Jewish state would no longer be an aberration. Or so it hopes.
Of course the hypocrisy and double standards emanating from such a policy are self-evident. If Israel recognizes the right of indigenous peoples in the region to self-determination, why does it continue to deny that right to the Palestinians? Its racist and discriminatory laws and policies, both against its own Arab citizens and the Palestinians under occupation, contradict its publicized, but false, image as a self-proclaimed democratic state and the only democracy in the Middle East.
Israel’s apparent sympathy with the Kurds is meant to blackmail Turkey, weaken Iraq, intimidate Iran and destabilize the region.
Netanyahu’s apparent sympathy with the Kurdish cause is meant to blackmail Turkey, weaken Iraq and intimidate Iran. For Ankara, the Kurdish issue is at the heart of its national security. It is unfortunate that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s earlier policy of opening up to Turkey’s Kurdish minority and allowing it additional self-rule powers has failed.
The central government in Baghdad should do its best to re-negotiate past agreements with Iraqi Kurds to avoid the possible break-up of the country. The Kurds have made a convincing case about rampant corruption, sectarian and vindictive policies and religious divisions that have gripped the Baghdad government for years, and eventually led to the creation of Daesh.
And just as Israel supported non-Arab separatists in South Sudan for decades, it finds it essential to its own survival to align itself with ethnic and religious minorities in other parts of the Arab world. It tried that in Lebanon, too. Ties with Iraqi Kurds go back to the 1960s when Israel supported the rebellious province against the Baghdad regime. It would not be surprising to discover that Israel had established contacts with Syria’s Kurds, who are now fighting Daesh in eastern Syria and threaten to clash with the Syrian army in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.
Destabilizing the region and weakening central governments will shift attention from Israel’s own nefarious policies toward the Palestinians while hastening the process of colonizing what remains of the West Bank.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders should be wary of Israeli overtures at this crucial stage. They should remember that regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, it is with Iraq, Turkey and Iran that they should make peace and normalize relations. They cannot escape their geographic destiny.
Associating themselves with a country that continues to deny the Palestinian right to self-determination and is overseeing the longest occupation in modern times will eventually backfire and hurt their cause. The onus is on Israel to finally recognize Palestinians’ right to be free and live in their own state.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.