In the run-up to Iraqi Kurdistan's referendum, almost the entire international community lined up against the Iraqi Kurds' move toward independence. The Iraqi central government called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s move illegal. Both Iran and Turkey, fearing the precedent the Iraqi Kurdish referendum sends to their own Kurdish populations, have threatened reprisals, the most serious of which could be revealed in the weeks to come. The United States, meanwhile, opposes the referendum because of fears it could undermine the fight against the Islamic State at a time when Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces are on the cusp of driving them out of their last Iraqi stronghold near Hawija. Arab states oppose the Kurds, well, because they're not Arab. And the broader international community wishes to avoid regional chaos.
Only Israel has voiced full-throated official support for the referendum and an independent Kurdistan. Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed Kurdish independence. Israel "supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state," he declared.
On its surface, Netanyahu's actions are not surprising. Israelis have long had an affinity for the Kurds. Prior to Iran's Islamic Revolution, Israel pursued an ethnic strategy to ally with non-Arab states such as Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia against the Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East. In addition, many in Iraqi Kurdistan's once sizeable Jewish community fled to Israel. Then there's the affinity Israelis have with the Iraqi Kurds as survivors of repression and genocide. Finally, there's the diplomatic angle. Iraq has long called for territories disputed by both Israel and the Palestinians to go to the Palestinians and so, from an Israeli point of view, why shouldn't Jerusalem support a similar dismantling of large chunks of Iraq?
Netanyahu's game, however, is also cynical and inconsistent. How can he, after all, support independence for Kurds in Iraq but do business with a regime guilty in recent years of far greater oppression in Turkey? And, what does Israeli support for Kurdish independence mean? If Turkish troops, Iran's Qods Force, or Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi militias enter the region, will Israel come to Kurdish defense?
While Kurds cite wild and untrue, rumors of Israeli F-16s based at Erbil's international airport, the logistical lift would be difficult and Israel would not want to deplete its weapons system when it might need them to defend the Jewish state against Iran and Hezbollah. Nor does it appear that Israel is willing to give weaponry to the Kurds. This might simply be either because of strings attached by Israel's supplier and/or recognition that weaponry given to the Kurds often ends up on the black market.
Either way, Israeli authorities are guilty of inciting the Kurds toward disaster.
While it is impossible to read Netanyahu's mind, he is probably viewing the Iraqi Kurdish struggle through the lens of Israel's concern about Iran. He knows that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would send shockwaves and perhaps destabilize Iran. But if Israel is to support the Kurds, it should do so for the Kurds' sake, not for other realpolitik motives.
Here, alas, Kurdish history might repeat, albeit with different actors. In the early 1970s, the Iraqi Kurds became a Cold War proxy in the battle for influence between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1975, however, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger withdrew support for the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq after brokering a deal between Tehran and Baghdad. Iraqi forces poured north and the Kurds, including current de facto leader Massoud Barzani, fled to Iran. Kissinger's cynical move set the Kurds up for the massacres they subsequently suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Today, however, Israeli leaders treat the Kurds as pawns in a new Cold War between Jerusalem and Tehran. The Kurdish population needs to know what the Kurdish leadership understands: Israel is not going to be able to give Iraqi Kurdistan what it needs.
If Israel truly wants to support the Kurds, then Israeli leaders could counsel Kurds on tough choices taken by the nascent Jewish state decades ago. The Kurds claim an expansive Kurdistan and call Kirkuk "their Jerusalem." And, at least when Westerners are around, they often compare themselves to Zionists fighting for their own state in the late 1940s.
But few Kurds remember that the Zionists accepted a partition plan with which they were dissatisfied, and agreed to a ceasefire that left the Old City of Jerusalem in Jordanian rather than Israeli hands.
Sometimes compromise is a necessary price for statehood. It is that type of counsel, rather than a polemical endorsement, which Kurds could use. And, unless Israel is willing to support the Kurds where and how it counts, they would do better if Israel simply remained silent.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.
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