One of the Middle East’s most important relationships is barely understood and largely kept hush-hush.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein, Israel and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region have steadily converged toward one another, despite their official stance that there are no such relations. In reality, their forbidden friendship is purposefully opaque due to lack of formal ties between Tel Aviv and Baghdad—and has frequently circumvented such diplomatic protocols.
The friendship carries mutual benefits. For Israel, advocating for Iraqi Kurdish independence enhances the Jewish state’s regional interests by strengthening its political and military leverage against regional adversaries—namely Iran—also unpopular among many in Iraq’s Kurdish region, and certainly those in the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party.
For the Kurdistan Regional Government, additional regional support is crucial—flanked by politically adversarial Kurds in Syria, ISIS’ brutality, an uncertain and unstable Iraq, and a somewhat tolerable if not unfriendly Iran, the KRG needs support wherever it can find it. Indirect relations with Israel strengthens Iraqi Kurds’ political aspirations and may help stabilize their ruptured, faltering economy.
Over the last two years, several Israeli military and political officials have voiced support for Kurdish independence, including former ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor, justice minister Ayelet Shaked, and the late president and prime minister Shimon Peres, who spoke in favor of Kurdsduring his official meeting with former U.S. Pres. Barack Obama in June 2014, praising their “de facto state and democracy.”
Shortly after ISIS occupied Mosul in June 2014, and only days after Peres’ pronouncement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Iraqi Kurdish independence in his speech at Tel Aviv University’s annual Institute for National Security Studies conference.
“It is upon us to support the international efforts to … support the Kurds’ aspiration for independence,” he said, adding they “have proven political commitment and political moderation, and they’re also worthy of their own political independence.”
Above—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At top—an oil tanker carrying oil from Iraqi Kurdistan was blocked from unloading in Texas for months before unloading in Ashkelon, Israel. U.S. Coast Guard photo
The declarations have extended to vocal support for the Iraqi-Kurdish war with ISIS. Addressing the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington in March 2016, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon expressed that “Kurds so far demonstrated that they have the capability to fight Da’esh [ISIS], and [Israel] will support them.”
Additionally, Israeli officials are laying the groundwork for further engagement with their regional neighbor and ostensible ally. In early 2016, Israeli Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova announced to the Kurdish diaspora Ziv magazine that she is chairing what is effectively the “Kurdish Caucus” in Israel’s parliament.
“We are currently working on a project that would include academic exchange[s] as well as cooperation in the field of sports,” she said, adding that such collaboration will also include working together “against common enemies and in the fields of agriculture, high-tech, and education.”
However, though Kurdish authorities welcome political support from nearly anywhere, the KRG remains vague about its indirect relations with Israel since it does not seek to jeopardize crucial economic or political relations with its immediate neighbors, primarily Iran, nor much-needed investment from Gulf countries.
Thus, Israeli-Kurdish relations have proceeded with caution. In October 2015, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani appointed Sherzad Mamsani the first Representative for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Mamsani was tasked with securing the rights and advocating for the minuscule crypto-Jewish Benjew community in Kurdistan as well as acting as a cultural liaison between Kurdistan and the broader Jewish world. However, due to unclear reasons, Mamsani was temporarily “suspended” from his office.
As part of a newfound focus on Jewish programming, three major Kurdish networks—KurdistanTV, Rudaw and Kurdistan24—all closely affiliated with the KDP—surprised many by broadcasting various interviews and programs about Israeli-Kurds, with one station even broadcasting coverage of Israel’s contentious 2015 election. Israeli television channel I24 also secured an interview with Pres. Masoud Barzani in late 2015—the first time an Israeli media outlet managed to speak with the KRG leader.
Beyond the political rhetoric and television programming, while Israeli political pronouncements are clearly welcome, material support has been significant but almost entirely limited to economics.
Shocking many regional observers, the Financial Times brought to light that during summer 2015, Israel imported via sea nearly 77 percent of its oil from the KRG, worth an estimated $1 billion, or one-third of total KRG oil exports. According to the report, such trade was conducted through secretive pre-pay deals brokered by some of the world’s largest oil trading companies—and to Washington’s great displeasure.
Despite the reports, officials from both countries preferred to keep these details under wraps. KRG Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami denied selling oil to Israel “directly or indirectly,” while Israel cited its policy not to comment on energy imports to private refineries.
Furthermore, at least three American and Canadian-born Jews—all Israeli citizens and former Israel Defense Forces soldiers—joined different Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Largely symbolic rather than representative, these individuals professing humanitarian desires have different motivations for such dramatic volunteerism and have urged the world to act more earnestly on Kurds’ behalf across their convulsive, unstable region.
Overall, these events, while perhaps limited in impact and scope, suggest a general openness toward layered, substantive relations that may pave the way to more direct, concrete and lasting engagement in the future. Both Israel and the KRG could benefit tremendously should they continue to prioritize constructive and diverse avenues through which to nurture and maintain either direct or indirect relations.