Middle East Chaos Creates Opening for Israeli-Kurdish Ties
By: Guido Weiss
The decay of the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East, has paved the way to increased Kurdish autonomy and development of international relations with many states including Israel. The three dominant Kurdish entities, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, and Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, have staked out different positions vis-a-vis Israel. The KRG, comprised of numerous sub-entities, has cultivated relatively positive relations with Israel. As for the PKK and PYD, the former has historically maintained hostility towards Israel, while the latter largely still has not addressed relations with Israel. As Kurdish autonomy becomes a salient factor in a chaotic Middle East, Israel will likely continue its long history of outreach to Kurdish groups.
Israel and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)
Despite US and Turkish preferences for a unified Iraq, Israel is one of the most vocal supporters of Kurdish independence in Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Institute for International Security Studies (INSS) on June 30, 2015, “[The Kurds are] a warrior nation that is politically moderate…[and] worthy of statehood”. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked echoed Netanyahu’s sentiment at the annual INSS conference on January 20, 2016, “We must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel”. Israel views relations with the KRG as a strategic necessity to counter Iran. A friendly KRG could potentially extend Israel’s intelligence capabilities into the broader Middle East and Iran, which shares a porous 400 kilometer border with the KRG.
While Israel has no official representation in Erbil, Israel has trade relations with the KRG. According to the Financial Times, Israel imported 19 million barrels of Kurdish oil between early May 2015 and mid-August 2015. The KRG sends its oil through the Kirkuk-Ceyphan pipeline to the Ceyphan Port in southern Turkey and thereafter, to Israel. However, PKK and affiliated Kurdish militant groups have increasingly targeted the pipeline, but shipments will almost certainly continue because Israel relies heavily on Kurdish oil. With the exception of oil, KRG-Israeli trade is limited due to political considerations. The KRG is wary of overstepping the authority of the central Baghdad government, which has hostile relations with Israel, but will remain open to further engagement as Iraq continues to transform.
Israel and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
Israel has not and most probably will not develop relations with the PKK. The Kurdish group is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the US and offers little to secure Israel’s strategic interests. The Israeli army also has cooperated closely with the Turkish army for many years and aided it in its fight against the PKK. According to a 2010 CNN report, the then commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Ilker Basbug admitted to the use of Israeli Heron drones in the mountainous border region between Iraq and Turkey to monitor PKK positions. PKK leaders also have accused Israel of assisting Turkey in the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. More recently, Israel has made efforts to restore relations with Turkey, which suffered after Israeli Naval commandos raided a Turkish flotilla in 2011. Thus, Israel almost certainly will not make overtures to the PKK, which could derail its reconciliation process with Turkey.
Israel and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)
Turkish sensitivities also stand in the way of the PYD and Israel developing close ties. The PYD has an intimate relationship with the PKK, and Turkey, in many respects, views the PYD as an extension of the PKK influence. Turkey even shelled the PYD’s military wing in February 2016, illustrating the deeply rooted tensions between the two parties. Thus, Israel unlikely can develop ties with the PYD without undermining its relationship with Ankara.
Furthermore, Israel has prioritized maintaining security along the Golan Heights and combating Iranian influence in Syria over developing relations with the PYD. Nevertheless, future cooperation should not be counted out because the PYD has maintained a relatively neutral position on Israel. PYD co-leader Salih Muslim stated that Israel could play a role in the PYD’s vision of a Middle East democratic confederalism, “If[Israel] is democratic…and can live in peace along with the Arabs and the other nations”. Given the strategically important PYD autonomous region in northern Syria, Israel may undertake efforts to build ties with the PYD as the Syrian Civil War evolves.
The overarching theme in Israel’s policy towards the various Kurdish factions is the Turkey factor. The KRG’s working relationship with the United States and Turkey makes the Iraqi Kurds Israel’s most politically feasible Kurdish partner. Meanwhile, future Israeli engagement with the PYD and PKK will depend on Israeli-Turkish rapprochement and PKK-Turkish tensions.
Kurdish concerns over the regional backlash from Israeli relations must also be considered. The KRG and PYD will be wary of aggravating their Arab neighbors, who are hostile to Israeli influence. Additionally, the KRG must take into consideration its significant commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran before any upgraded relationship with Israel. Iran is the only state entity that maintains two diplomatic missions in the KRG, with consulates in Erbil and Sulaimaniya. Furthermore, Iran has the ability to impose significant leverage on the KRG with its influence over Baghdad, border security, imports, and exports.
Iranian concerns over Israel’s relationship with the KRG have already spurred condemnation from Iranian officials. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission commented in 2014 that Kurdish independence is “the Zionist regime’s special goal in the region.”
The development of three distinct Kurdish powers highlights the long term impact of the Sykes-Picot borders on the Kurdish ethnic group. As in the case for Arab states, Kurdish entities have formed unique and at times competing regional agendas. Meanwhile, amidst the present day climate of conflict in Syria and Iraq, Israel has been presented with greater opportunities to develop relations with the Kurds. However, just as the KRG cannot maintain official ties with Israel due to its status within the Iraqi state, the PYD may fall under a similar constitutional bind in the eventual post-civil war days of Syria. Lastly, Jerusalem’s relationship with Ankara will remain the constant factor amidst these developments. Israel’s cold war era strategy of reaching out to Kurds certainly has a relevant future in the evolving power structures Middle East minority politics.
Guido Weiss worked as a risk consultant for American and European companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa. He holds also holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the American University in Washington, D.C.
- Guido Weiss