Among the polemics that followed the declaration of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership that they would hold a referendum on independence Sept. 25, 2017, there were three types of reactions in the Middle East: those who opposed the idea altogether, the waverers who sought to defer the referendum to another date, and the so-called well-wishers who warned of the catastrophic consequences for the Kurds and the region as a whole.
Two dissenters also made themselves heard. In a provocative article titled “Four other Israels … or Kurdistan without Kurds,” the Kurdish writer Welat Muhammad takes issue with official discourse in Arab, Turkish, and Iranian states that depict the Kurdish endeavor to establish a state of their own as a project for establishing a second, or even four other, Israels in the region—in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Muhammad quotes a Turkish politician who during a visit to Iran in the summer of 2017 called for cooperation between their two countries because “America and Israel threaten the unity of the land in the region while Israel is seeking to establish a second Israel under the title of Greater Kurdistan.” Ali Akbar Velayeti, an adviser to Iran supreme leader Ali Khamenei stated a year earlier that “the objective behind the establishment of a Kurdish state is the creation of a second and third Israel in the region in order to divide it, which is the goal of imperialism and the Zionists.”
Muhammad slams this portrayal because it presents the establishment of a Kurdish state as an Israeli-imperialist conspiracy that has nothing to do with the Kurds themselves, their aspirations, and their 100-year struggle for independence. Muhammad emphasizes that the Kurds’ detractors are cognizant of the Kurdish right for self-determination but they keep raising the Israeli conspiracy theory in order to delegitimize the Kurdish state and diabolize it. In another article titled “Palestine, Kurdistan and the Arab conscience,” the Kurdish journalist Rustum Mahmud criticizes the double standard exemplified in Arab opposition to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state while they had spent the entire 20th century defending the right of the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.
Yet not a single leader came out openly in support of a Kurdish state—except for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who stated publicly in August that Israel supports Kurdistan’s independence. Netanyahu chose the timing for his declaration during a meeting with 33 American Congressmen when he stated that the Kurds “are a brave, pro-Western people who share our values.” Since the Trump administration has been putting pressure on the Kurdish leadership to postpone the referendum if not to cancel it altogether, such declarations on the part of Netanyahu may be interpreted as a challenge to Washington or an attempt to goad it to adopt a more positive stance. Anyway, Netanyahu’s declaration only served to add further fuel to the conspiracy theory concerning the establishment of a “second Israel.”
The Arab double standard: opposition to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, while defending the right of the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.
The notion of a Kurdish state as a “second Israel” is not new. It was first coined in Iraq during the Kurdish revolution in the 1960s. The coupling of Kurdistan with Israel is construed to serve several ends: Delegitimizing both Israel and a future Kurdish state; mobilizing Arab and Muslim states’ support against both; appealing to Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, to oppose the Kurdish pseudo-Zionist project; and impressing upon world public opinion the idea that a Kurdish state would wreak havoc on the Middle East exactly, it is claimed, as the establishment of Israel had done. There is also an implied threat that the surrounding countries will fight a Kurdish state, just as they fight Israel.
The sounding of alarm bells against a Kurdish state draws from the negative images with which the host-states have portrayed the Kurds, depicting them as an unruly and uncultured people who are bent on destabilizing the state, any state. Interestingly, the same argument has been rehashed by world leaders in order to justify their current opposition to the referendum.
Yet taking the last 25 years as a yardstick, any objective observer will note the huge difference between the unstable Arab part of Iraq and the stability of Kurdistan. The fact is that since 1974, Arab Iraq has been busy launching wars against its own population or against its neighbors, thus becoming a major exporter of instability to the entire Middle East. Similarly, the so-called Arab Spring and its disastrous consequences for the societies of the Middle East was rooted in Arab governments’ abysmal treatment of their populations, of which the Kurds were victims, and hardly perpetrators. Finally, what kind of stability currently exists in the region for a Kurdish state to upset?
Regarding the impact of a Kurdish state in Iraq on Kurdish communities in the other states it should be recalled that the Kurds of Syria rose up spontaneously in the aftermath of the upheavals in Syria, that the Kurds of Turkey have been in a state of rebellion since the 1980s and so are the Kurds of Iran, even if their fight does not reach world media. The last 100 years have witnessed continuous wars between Iraqi Kurds and the central government precisely because the Kurdish and Arab national movements could not coexist. In fact, the Kurdish region suffered the worst catastrophes when it was an integral part of the Iraqi state, evidenced in the Halabja and al-Anfal genocide in 1988. As for the specter of civil war in Iraq, it has indeed been raging for the past 15 years—but between Sunnis and Shia.
Meanwhile, the de facto Kurdish state has been relatively stable, pro-Western, not inclined to political Islam and more tolerant and democratic than its neighbors. Since the flare-up of the war against the Islamic State in 2014, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have proved to be effective in battle and loyal to the Western alliance. The Kurdistan government’s tolerant stance was attested to during this war when it accommodated about 2 million refugees and internally displaced people. Regarding minorities, President Mas’ud Barzani declared the government’s intention to modify the Kurdish anthem and the flag to reflect the ethno-religious mosaic of Kurdistani society. Kurdistan in Iraq has also devised the economic and military infrastructure that can enable it to survive separately from Baghdad.
These unique features go a long way to explain Israel’s sympathy toward Kurdistan in Iraq. But in addition, there is also much common ground between them built on the affinity between the two peoples and the need to combat common enemies, as expressed in an unwritten alliance that goes back to the 1960s. Israel’s firm position favoring a Kurdish state is therefore founded on clear moral, strategic, and political considerations. While on the public level no relations seem to exist at all, and Israeli officials’ statements vis-à-vis Kurdistan are met as a rule with dead silence from Kurdish officials behind the scenes, there is quite a lot of activity—cultural, security-related, and economic—the importance of which may be gleaned from reports that Israel was buying Kurdish oil and thus assisting Kurdistan to weather the severe economic crisis.
Monday’s referendum may well be used as a litmus test for examining the international community’s approach toward the Kurds, with Israel being one of the first countries that might recognize a Kurdish state once it is declared. The attempt to tarnish the image of a Kurdish state by calling it a “second Israel” might boomerang, as Kurdistan might become more steadfast and prosperous than its neighbors.
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Professor Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Center, Tel Aviv University and the author of several books, including The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.