According to an old Kurdish proverb, “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Iraqi-Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017, exercised in the face of global opposition, seemed to confirm this declaration. A sea of demonstrators filled stadiums, streets, and public squares after over 90 percent of voters chose independence, despite widespread opposition from countries such as Iran and the United States. Among the multitude of Kurdish flags, however, was an unexpected sight: the blue and white six-pointed star of the Israeli flag. To date, Israel remains the only nation to publicly support the Kurdish referendum, and the Kurdish independence movement has widely been dubbed “a second Israel” by adversaries. While a Kurdish state still remains unlikely, Israeli support for the independence referendum raises an important point: The Kurds may have finally found the friend they need.
The relationship between the Jews and the Kurds dates back to as early as the eighth century B.C.E., when Jews were held captive by the Babylonians in the area corresponding to present-day Kurdistan. In more modern times, relations between the Kurds and Israelis began shortly after Israel’s creation. Many Kurds left Iraq to partake in the project of a Jewish homeland, and the persecution of the Jews in the early 1950s forced the remaining Kurdish Jews out of Iraq. Guided by a small group of Kurdish fighters, they fled over the mountains to Israel’s former ally, Iran, where many were then airlifted to Israel. One of these Kurdish fighters, Masoud Barzani, was president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) when Iraqi Kurdistan called for the referendum. Just over a decade later, during the first Kurdish-Iraqi war, Israel coordinated a covert operation via Iran to free Barzani, who was overwhelmed by Iraqi forces.
Since the 1960s, Israel has provided Iraqi Kurdistan with intelligence, military support, and humanitarian aid. The robust historical relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan has led many to criticize current Israeli support of the independence referendum as an effort to create “a second Israel.” The moniker is widely seen as a part of a larger effort among Israelis and Kurds to conflate Kurdish national aspirations with regional animus toward Israel. Israel nevertheless sees great economic and strategic potential in an independent Kurdish state, and a secure relationship between the two nations would likely prove beneficial to both parties.
In 2015, the Financial Times reported that over three-quarters of oil consumed by Israel—an extremely oil-poor state—comes from the Iraqi Kurdistan region. With few allies in the region, Israel has relied upon less geographically convenient nations for its oil supply. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would have the potential to ease this geographical oil isolation. Israel also sees an independent Kurdish state as a new market for its booming agriculture and technology sector. In 2016, a member of the Israeli parliament formed a caucus to explore potential exchanges in these areas. The opening of new markets and the prospect of oil security are strong incentives for a formal alliance between an independent Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel.
This economic potential, however, is dwarfed by the strategic advantage that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would grant Israel. Due to the intertwined history of the Kurds and the Jews, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be a reliable long-term ally of Israel—a relationship sorely needed for a country with a history of regional isolation.
Bordering Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and most importantly Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan lies in a key geographical location. Just 416 miles west of Tehran, Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil was used as an operation center by Israeli intelligence during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Israel has since used the region to spy on Iranian nuclear development. The location of Iraqi Kurdistan also has the potential to act as a buffer against extremist groups and terrorist organizations.
And in the fight against ISIL, Iraqi Kurdistan has played a more active role than just a buffer: Its military forces, Peshmerga, have been some of the most effective in the region. If, however, Israel fails to support the Kurds, it can’t depend on the government to remain cordial. Iran’s influence on Kurdistan’s minority party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is growing, and so is the power of the party itself. The PUK, which has never been the majority coalition in the history of the KRG, is poised to capitalize on the decision to call the independence referendum. If Israel does not step in to support the KRG, it risks allowing the Iranians to become greater players in the region, but if it does, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be a stronghold for Israeli intelligence and prove to be a pivotal influence.
While relations with Israel are crucial to promoting an independent Kurdish state, it is important to recognize the aversion that other regional states have toward Israel. The budding Israeli-Kurdish relationship stokes regional fear that an Israeli-backed nation could be formed on the border of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Already, President Barzani has been called an “Israeli puppet” due to his deep historical ties with Israel. The Turkish press and other media have spread outlandish rumors that Israel plans to transport all 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel to the KRG following the independence referendum.
Western nations, including the United States and Great Britain, are frustrated by the recent push for Kurdish independence. They see the conflict between Iraqi forces and Peshmerga as a distraction from the fight against terrorist organizations and corrosive to the stability of Iraq. This frustration with the Kurds and the overarching opposition to an independent state call into question whether a Kurdish nation is still a viable possibility.
Since the September 25th referendum, the loss of Kirkuk, often called “the Kurdish Jerusalem,” has decelerated the movement for independence. Prior to the referendum, the KRG seemed to be in control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s most oil-rich city, and prepared to use it as an important bargaining chip in the fight for a Kurdish state. But it took just hours to dash these hopes, as Iraqi forces stormed the city just weeks after the independence referendum took place. Iraq is now planning to remove Iraqi Kurdistan’s control over border crossings, a major power of the semi-autonomous region.
These factors are worrying to the Kurds, who overwhelmingly support independence. Though cooperation with Israel is not ideal considering its polarizing reputation, Israel may be the only option the Kurds have to achieve their goal of an independent Kurdish state. Israel too should continue to seek out this relationship in the face of opposition. A Kurdish state could provide economic partnerships, strategic opportunities, and a secure ally. If the shared histories of Israelis and the Kurds conjure support that runs deeper than politics, the Kurds may finally be able to count more than just the mountains as their friends.