KURDISTAN REGIONAL Government President Masoud Barzani gestures during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, in April. .
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
A number of senior Iraqi Kurd officials have visited Israel over the last several weeks urging Jerusalem to both support its independence and send a message to Washington to do the same, Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova said on Monday.
A referendum on independence in the Kurdistan region in Iraq is scheduled for September 25.
The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation of US Republican congressmen on Thursday that he is in favor of an independent Kurdish state in parts of Iraq.
Netanyahu, according to a source who took part in the discussion, expressed his “positive attitude” toward a Kurdish state in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, saying that the Kurds are a “brave, pro-Western people who share our values.”
Netanyahu’s comments to the congressmen came the same day that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani to postpone the independence referendum.
The US position is that a referendum now will distract from more pressing matters, such as defeating Islamic State, and could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and turn into another regional flashpoint. Turkey, Iran and Syria, which together with Iraq have sizable Kurdish populations, all oppose an independent Kurdistan.
Svetlova, who chairs a Knesset caucus for strengthening relations between Israel and the Kurdish people, said that visiting Kurdish officials were looking for Jerusalem’s help in getting Washington to back the independence drive.
“They say that Israel has a strong lobby, and the ear of [US President Donald] Trump, and that they would be very happy if we could help,” she said.
But the US position is that now – with a victory over Islamic State in Mosul and an Iraqi prime minister who is having some success – is “not the time to rock the boat” with Kurdish independence, she said.
The last time Netanyahu came out in favor of Kurdish independence was three years ago.
Ofra Bengio, whose areas of expertise at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University include Israel-Kurdish ties, said that the timing of Netanyahu’s comments to the congressmen was clearly connected to the referendum.
The Kurds, she said, are looking for “as many voices of support” for their referendum as possible, and Netanyahu’s expressing support for the move to a delegation of congressmen is exactly what the Iraqi Kurds want.
Michael Oren, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said that in addition to the referendum issue, Netanyahu’s remarks to the delegation were also the result of the awareness in Jerusalem of “the rapidity with which Iran is consolidating its position in the region and Iraq, and that a Kurdish state would be one way to block it.”
The Iraqi Kurds, he said, “are obviously not pro-Iranian.”
Furthermore, he said, “With all the talks over the decades of a Palestinian right to self-determination, and the Palestinian refusal to accept offers of self-determination – or even negotiate for one – it is about time that people consider another people who are no less deserving, or at least as deserving, as the Palestinians.”
Oren said the Iraqi Kurds are “pro-Western, stable, strong and open to Israel.”
Svetlova said she was “100% sure that Kurdish independence is good for us because we need to look for partners in the Middle East.”
There are no better partners or people who respect Israel’s achievements more than the Iraqi Kurds, she said.
Svetlova acknowledged that coming out squarely in favor of Kurdish independence was complicated – considering the passions doing so would arouse in Turkey, Iran and among competing Kurdish groups less positively disposed toward Israel in Turkey and Syria – but that Israel needed to take a stand.
“I think that morally, as a country that needed any help we could get in 1948, we need to support them,” she said.Reuters contributed to this report.