When the Israeli navy raided the Gaza-bound Mavi Mamara on May 31, a chorus of cries was raised across the Muslim world. But one Muslim leader was noticeably absent from the collective protest: Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Barzani’s reticence was all the more noticeable because, three days after the attack—which left nine people dead after the boat refused to observe an Israeli-enforced blockade against the Hamas-run territory—he was in Ankara to meet with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the first time in nine years that Barzani had met with a Turkish counterpart. But he didn’t join in criticizing Israel.
Turkish-Kurdish relations have been notoriously fractious and violent; Turkey’s brutal, 25-year war against Kurdish separatists has killed an estimated 45,000 people, and skirmishes between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, which seeks to form an independent Kurdish state that would include parts of present-day Turkey, continue to this day. Last year, Erdogan forged a shaky truce with the Kurds, who comprise about a sixth of Turkey’s population and a fifth of Iraq’s, while continuing the fight against the violent separatist organization. This policy, referred to as the “Kurdish Opening,” has seen a warming of ties between Turkey and the broader Kurdish community, which is concentrated mostly in Syria, Iran, and northern Iraq. “I feel really among my brothers,” Barzani said, a sentiment that would have been unimaginable from the Kurdish leader just a few years ago. This past summer, Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, and a Turkish diplomat recently told me that his country “sees the Kurds as our strategic partners.”
Prior to the meeting, Erdogan had been working himself into a lather over the flotilla incident. He immediately withdrew his country’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the matter, and called the raid “inhumane state terrorism,” all in a seeming bid to become spokesman for the Muslim world. He went so far as to compare the Israeli Defense Forces to the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and the European Union. “They saw innocent babies as a threat,” Erdogan declared in the Turkish city of Konya, just a day after meeting Barzani. “They massacred those innocent babies in their mothers’ arms, like those terrorists here.”
With this rhetorical onslaught, Erdogan presented a challenge to Barzani, who as leader of the Kurds has tried to distance the KRG (which has achieved a substantial degree of autonomy in three provinces in northern Iraq) from the PKK and taken a delicate approach to the touchy subject of Kurdish independence. While refusing to rule out the prospect that Kurdistan might one day become a sovereign state, Barzani has made efforts to support Iraq’s nascent federal democracy. When I interviewed him in May, in the midst of fraught negotiations following the most recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, he stressed support for a “national unity government.” (My trip to Kurdistan was sponsored by the KRG.) But if Erdogan was trying to goad Barzani into bashing the Jewish state, his attempts proved unsuccessful. The most that Barzani offered was that he’s “very upset from the loss of civilian life.”
Compared with the outraged reactions from other global figures—particularly his brethren in the Islamic world—Barzani’s response was remarkably tepid. And that’s hardly surprising. For decades, Kurds and Israelis have enjoyed a mutual affinity, fostered by shared aversion to forces that oppressed Kurds and supported terrorism against Israel. The extent of this sympathy was fallaciously leant a duplicitous cast in 2003 when the FBI launched a probe into the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The resulting case hinged upon fabricated, “classified” documents, delivered by a Pentagon analyst (working for the FBI as a condition of a plea bargain) to an AIPAC staffer, purporting to show that the lives of Mossad agents working undercover in Kurdistan were in danger. Another AIPAC staffer relayed the information to the Israeli embassy. The case, spurious from the beginning—and predicated upon a rationale that was referred to at the time as “an unprecedented interpretation of the 89-year-old Espionage Act,” by the then-ombudsman of the First Amendment Center—was dropped due to the government’s failure to prove that the activities of the then-AIPAC staffers in any way compromised U.S. national security.
The existence or extent of Israel’s intelligence relationship with Kurdistan is officially denied by both parties. When I asked a senior Kurdish intelligence official if the KRG cooperated with the Israelis, he demurred. In line with most Muslim states, Iraq doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, and moves by the KRG to formulate a foreign policy independent of the central government irritate Baghdad. But official relations between an independent or autonomous Kurdistan and Israel could one day prove to be a decisive factor in the chessboard that is Middle Eastern politics, and whatever their present scope, such relations make a great deal of sense. That’s because Kurdistan and Israel, as well as Kurds and Jews as people, share strategic interests and historic commonalities.
The relationship between Kurds and Jews goes back to ancient times. Jews lived in Kurdistan since the exile of the 10 Tribes in the 8th century BCE. At the community’s height, Kurdish Jews numbered around 50,000, spread between Iran, Turkey, and northern Iraq. Many of them fled for Israel when the Jewish state declared its independence in 1948, and that trickle turned into a flood in the 1950s as life for Jews in Iraq became more and more difficult.
Political relations began in 1965, when David Kimche, one of the founding fathers of the Mossad, visited Kurdistan to meet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s father and then-leader of the Kurds. The meeting came at the behest of the senior Barzani, who was seeking outside support for his people’s fight against the military regime that ruled the country. Kimche returned to Jerusalem urging Israeli support for the Kurds as part of the Jewish state’s outreach to non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey. With the United States, Israel covertly trained the Kurdish paramilitary, or peshmerga, and provided the Kurds with agricultural and technological know-how.
But Israel was forced to break off its relations with the Kurds 10 years later when Iran, then under the control of Shah Reza Pahlavi, signed an agreement with Iraq under which it would withdraw its backing of the Kurdish militants bedeviling Iraq’s Ba’athist regime, in exchange for the resolution of a territorial dispute along the Iran-Iraq border. Iran and Israel both pulled their military advisers out of northern Iraq, to the great dismay of Kurdish leaders.
The relationship blossomed once again, however, after the first Gulf War, when the United States and Great Britain began to enforce a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq that protected the Kurds (and southern Shia) from Saddam Hussein’s aggression. And cooperation allegedly heightened in the aftermath of the second Iraq War, at least according to a 2004 New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh, which asserted that Israel was “establishing a significant presence on the ground” in Kurdistan in order to keep an eye on bordering Iran. “Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan,” Hersh reported, “providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria.” Others dispute Hersh, who relies heavily on anonymous sources, and whose claims of Israeli involvement in Kurdistan have yet to be confirmed by any other media outlet. “The notion that there are hundreds of Israelis running around Iraqi Kurdistan is a fantasy and has been publicly ridiculed by Kurdish leaders,” says Andrew Apostolou, a senior program manager at Freedom House, an independent human-rights watchdog. “The main foreign political and economic presences in Iraqi Kurdistan are American, British, Turkish, and Iranian. Iraqi Kurdistan is also seeking to link itself economically to the Gulf.”
Those claiming that the decline in Israeli-Turkish relations is something sudden, the bitter fallout of the January 2009 Gaza War or this year’s flotilla incident, might look to this alleged move by Israel some six years ago as a contributing factor. And as early as 2007, Turkish security sources were allegedly complaining about Israeli recalcitrance in supplying them with promised weapons to fight Kurdish rebels. Potential Israeli cooperation with Kurds, even if initiated with the intent of undermining the despotic regimes in Syria and Iran, would bother Turkey regardless of the purpose. That’s because the Turks view the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to their control over their own Kurdish population.
The obvious alignment of interests between Israel and Kurdistan, and the concomitant decline in relations between Israel and Turkey, have let the Turkish press, never known for its responsibility or hesitancy to sink into sensationalism and anti-Semitism, run wild. Years-old rumors that Barzani is descended from a long line of Kurdish rabbis have been given new weight. Whether or not this aspect of Barzani’s lineage is actually true, it fits well into a conspiracy theory long peddled by Turkish nationalists, which paints Kurdish-Israeli ties as something more than just the result of empathy between two regional minorities that have endured discrimination, war, and genocide at the hands of others. Meanwhile, some enterprising Israelis coyly floated the idea of sending out “reverse flotillas” to aid Turkish Kurds.
Israel’s fraying relationship with Turkey will be to the Kurds’ benefit. One of the main factors that limited Israeli-Kurdish ties in the 1990s was Israel’s military and diplomatic alliance with Turkey, which for decades has been Israel’s most important ally in the Muslim world. That relationship at times led Israel to work against Kurdish aspirations, or at least give the appearance of doing so. In 1999, for example, hundreds of Kurds attacked the Israeli consulate in Berlin over accusations that Jerusalem had aided Ankara in apprehending PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya. Three Kurds were killed in the ensuing scuffle, and Israeli denial of the accusations did little to stem Kurdish anger. Thanks largely to the provocations of Erdogan’s Islamist government, however, the potential for a strengthened Israeli-Kurdish alliance has never looked better.
Beyond the strategic rationale for the Israeli-Kurdish relationship, there exists a deeper, values-based relationship. Both Jews and Kurds are embattled, once-stateless minorities in a region afflicted by obscurantist religious and ethnic movements that seek to sublimate, if not eliminate, religious and ethnic diversity. On one side of this divide lies a version of Sunni Wahabbist extremism and Shia radicalism pledging to rid the Middle East not only of Jews, but of anyone deemed insufficiently Islamic.
Another commonality is that both peoples have prevailed against attempts at extermination. In 1986, Saddam Hussein launched his Anfal campaign against the Kurds, eventually killing more than 200,000. In Halabja, the town about 10 miles from the Iranian border where, in 1988, the Iraqi military deployed poison gas to murder at least 5,000 people, a museum and monument stand to commemorate the dead. The museum’s inner sanctum, a round room with the names of the victims of the attack etched on the walls, evokes Yad Vashem. The city’s cemetery features a sign, “BA’ATH MEMBERS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER.” Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War didn’t endear Palestinians to the Kurds, and general Kurdish indifference to the plight of the Palestinians argues against the trendy theory of “linkage,” which argues that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite to solving a host of other problems in the Muslim world.
The Kurds have proudly defied the anti-Israel theatrics of their Muslim brethren. Speaking with a variety of KRG officials, I heard that they would be more than happy to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel were such a decision within their power. “We have no problems with Israel,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations. “They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them.” In a 2007 television interview, Barzani said, “If an Israeli embassy were opened in Baghdad, we would no doubt open an Israeli consulate in Erbil.” That same year, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sat next to Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, at an international women’s conference in Vienna. The two discussed the peace process and the plight of citizens in Sderot, the rocket-plagued Israeli city on the Gaza border. At the 2008 Socialist International, Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, shook Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s hand.
“We’ve been called ‘the second Israel,’ ” Bakir says. “We cite Israel as a democracy in the Middle East.” The regional forces arrayed against an independent Kurdistan are the same sorts of theocratic and authoritarian ones that tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948 and that have been arrayed against it ever since. “This island of democracy,” he says of Israel, “was seen as a germ,” yet Kurds take heart in its success as an independent nation. In light of their experience as a stateless people continually subjected to discrimination and genocide by the regimes under which they have lived, the Kurds have woefully adopted a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains.” They also have the Jews.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
Click here to view all articles in this series.
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.