human rights watch

torsdag 26 juni 2014

Israel and the Kurds, silence is golden: Analysis

Israel and the Kurds, silence is golden: Analysis.
Both sides have an interest in expanding their decades-old relationship, but only as long as it remains secret.

As the Iraqi state takes what appears to be its last breath, Iraq’s Kurds continue to gain momentum. Taking over oil-rich Kirkuk a few weeks ago symbolized the beginning of a new era for Iraqi Kurds, who have been demanding for years that Baghdad establish a proper profit sharing system for the black gold. Now the Kurds have to wait no more, given that patience in today’s Iraq is not a virtue, but a flaw. They followed the takeover of Kirkuk with the exporting of oil to interested customers – and according to Reuters, the first batch of Kurdish oil ended up in Israel's Mediterranean port of Ashkelon.

Those who monitor Kurdish-Israeli relations were not surprised. The ties between Israel and the Kurds began in the early 1960s, when Israeli intelligence agents operated in Iraqi Kurdistan and helped local authorities. The level of cooperation increased significantly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with Israeli contractors and companies entering Iraqi Kurdistan and routine reports in Iraqi media about Israeli commandos training the Kurdish Peshmerga.

However, official ties were never established, partly because of the Iraqi Kurds’ relations with Iran, an important regional actor that doesn't favor a Kurdish rapprochement with Israel. This is perhaps the reason for the furious denials published by the Kurdish ministry of natural reserves of the report about oil sales to Israel. "We have never sold oil to Israel, directly or indirectly," a source in the ministry told the Kurdish media network Rudaw. Israel, too, has been reluctant to publicize the relationship so as not to endanger its relations with Turkey. However, now that geopolitical circumstances have changed significantly, both sides might reconsider.   
A few years ago a publication named "Israel-Kurd" was launched in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The magazine was published in Arabic and Kurdish and included insights into Israeli history and politics. The editors explained that Jews and Kurds are more than just neighbors; they are actually close relatives who share a common ancestor – the biblical patriarch Abraham. This view is widespread among Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many believe Abraham was of Kurdish descent. But the fascination with Israel doesn't stop at Abraham. Many draw close parallels with Israel, also a non-Arab nation encircled by enemies who oppose its independence. Israel’s technological prowess, its well-armed military and the dynamic nature of Israeli society are all major draws for the Kurds, who had never stopped dreaming about an independent Kurdish state. The supporters of rapprochement with Israel believe that they also have something to offer the Jewish state – a close partnership based on mutual interests as well as values. This partnership, some say, could create a new balance of power in the Middle East and would be highly beneficial to Israel.

In this context it might be interesting to examine the situation in Syrian Kurdistan, where the Kurds are also trying to carve out an autonomous region. A draft constitution that was presented by the ruling Kurdish party doesn't view the Sharia as a basis of legislation, unlike the constitutions in Arab countries. While radical Islamic organizations such as "The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant" (ISIL) gain popularity among Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are generally drawn to much more moderate versions of Islam and strive to a modern state where women have equal rights.

However, Israel is neither the closest nor the most important ally for any future Kurdish state. Economically, Iraqi Kurdistan depends on Turkey – Kurdish oil is piped to the Turkish port of Jihan. Turkey is both the largest market for any Kurdish production and one of the largest importer of its goods. Iran is also important to the Kurds in Iraq, both as an immediate neighbor and a country with a significant Kurdish population. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani visited Iran recently to discuss the insurgency of the ISIL jihadists in Iraq and possible measures to counter it. Iran has an interest in containing the Kurds in Iraq to dampen any nationalistic fervor it its own Kurdish-populated areas. The Kurds in Iraq strive to achieve independence but would like to avoid a direct clash with such a serious regional power like Iran.

What effect will these considerations have on relations between the Kurds and Israel? For now it seems that the parties will increase the volume of their ties. However the clandestine nature of relations will remain. If Iraqi Kurds finally achieve independence, their state, at least in the beginning, will be too weak and vulnerable to establish official relations with Jerusalem, so for the time being an Israeli embassy in Kirkuk – the city known as Kurdish Jerusalem – is unlikely.

Ksenia Svetlova is an Arab affairs analyst for Israel's Russian-language Channel 9 and a fellow at "Mitvim", the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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