Israeli prime minister backs Kurdish independence in Iraq

An independent Kurdistan would give Israel an ally in the region and would undermine Iranian influence in Iraq

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks a meeting with businessmen in Buenos Aires, on September 12, 2017.
Netanyahu, who is accompanied by a 30-member delegation of Israeli business leaders on his two-day official visit to Argentina, said Israel was an "innovation nation" eager to share opportunities with Argentina in agriculture, water, IT, cyber security and health. / AFP PHOTO / Eitan ABRAMOVICH
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Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel supports the establishment of an independent Kurdistan ahead of a controversial referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence which Baghdad rejects.

An independent Kurdistan would give Israel an ally in the region and undermine Iranian influence in Iraq.

"Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own," Mr Netanyahu's office said.

The statement came just two days after Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked said Israel and western countries had "a major interest in the establishment of the state of Kurdistan".

She encouraged the United States to “support the process”, referring to the referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence planned for September 25.

Mr Netanyahu's office also said on Wednesday that Israel rejects the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and considers it a "terrorist organisation", taking a similar position as Turkey, the US and the European Union.

The statement was at odds with recent remarks made by former Israeli defence forces deputy chief Major General Yair Golan. During a conference in Washington on Thursday last week, Mr Golan expressed support for Kurdish independence and said the "Kurdish PKK fighting Turkey is not a terrorist organisation".

Professor Yossi Mekelberg, a senior associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, said “Israel’s main relations with the Kurdish regional government lies in economic and geostrategic interests”.

“Israel doesn’t want a strong Iran in the region and finding an ally in Iraq’s Kurdistan region will weaken Tehran,” professor Mekelberg said.

Since the 1960s, Israel has maintained discreet business, intelligence and military ties with the Kurds, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.

Future relations between the two will be “opaque and will mostly lie within intelligence, military ties and will be geostrategic only,” professor Mekelberg added.

The statement on Wednesday was not Mr Netanyahu's first endorsement of Kurdish statehood.

In June 2014, he called for “the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region” — a position that appeared to clash with the US position of trying to keep war-torn Iraq united.

"We should support the Kurdish aspiration for independence," Mr Netanyahu told a Tel Aviv think tank at the time, while describing Kurds as "a nation of fighters who have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence".

Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East after the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

Like Jews, Kurds share a history of statelessness and persecution. Many believe that their shared culture and language can be best preserved by claiming an independent state.

Neighbouring states, including Turkey and Iran, and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, have opposed Kurdish aspirations for independence out of fears it will destabilise the region. Even the US and other western states who have friendly relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan government have openly opposed the upcoming referendum, arguing it will distract from the war against ISIL.

But despite this, Kurdistan Regional Government president Masoud Barzani has vowed to press on with the poll.

The Kurds plan to hold the referendum in the three governorates that make up their self-ruled region — Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk — as well as disputed areas that are controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.