News published in the Financial Times on Sunday that Israel imports most of its oil from Iraq’s Kurdish areas came as no shock to those following the secretive Israel-Kurd relationship.
“The news is not so surprising, as it has been going on for some time,” Prof. Ofra Bengio, editor of the book Kurdish Awakening: Nation-Building in a Fragmented Homeland, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“The Kurds do not want problems with Baghdad or Tehran, so they prefer to stay quiet about it and not upset anybody,” said Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
It is a “wise idea to do it this way for now,” she added, saying the Kurds preferred to get aid from Israel through a third party.
“Israel is very much interested in strengthening relations, but they [the Kurds] are hesitant, especially not wanting to make it public,” she said, going on to assert that at some point they would need to go public, perhaps after gaining stronger US support.
Bengio wrote about the issue last summer in The American Interest
magazine, saying the sale of Kurdish oil to Israel via Turkey opened up new opportunities “for triangular economic relations” between them.
“It may also pave the way to improved political relations between Israel and Turkey,” she said at the time.
Semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked and depends on Turkey to expert its oil, she noted, and Turkish-Israeli economic relations continue apace despite political differences.
Asked if it was possible that Turkey or the Kurds might not know that Israel was the final destination of the oil since it could pass through a number of intermediaries first, Bengio responded: “Turkey for sure knows about this and welcomes it, since it wants the oil to continue to flow.”
Likewise for the Kurds, she continued, acknowledging that at least publicly, Kurdish officials reject this.
US oil refineries have also been receiving oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, which is locked in a bitter struggle with the central government in Baghdad, which says the sales are illegal.
An oil tanker from Kurdistan that was blocked for months from unloading in Texas due to a legal challenge by Baghdad sailed back to the Mediterranean and delivered its cargo to Israel earlier this year, according to trading sources and ship-tracking data. Several tankers that have carried Iraqi-Kurdish crude from Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan have unloaded at Israeli ports, according to ship-tracking data and industry sources.
Bengio pointed out that the Kurdish religious affairs ministry recently made an unusual move by including a Jewish representative in its work, adding that the timing was interesting.
Asked about the Kurds’ views on the Obama administration, Bengio said they favored Republicans, believing the party would help them. She added that they also considered the recent nuclear agreement with Iran to be dangerous.
Ari Aram, editor of the Ekurd.net website, told the Post on Monday that the Kurds were happy to sell their oil because Baghdad had placed restrictions on their oil sales, and few wanted to buy the product.
Baghdad is also cutting the funding it sends to the Kurdish region, Aram said, even as its militia is battling Islamic State.
“The economic situation in Kurdistan is bad, and any income for the region will benefit its people if the revenue is distributed fairly,” he stated.
Aram said the Kurds were happy about the news of selling oil to Israel, as they would like to see Israeli-Kurdish relations strengthened. He called on Kurdish leaders to go public and make these relations official, and to “loudly thank Israel for the help” it gives them.
He added that it was well known that the relationship was purposely being kept quiet.
Israel’s top officials have backed Kurdish independence, and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced this support, only rank and file Kurds thanked him because “our top officials may not have had the courage to do so publicly.”
Aram complained about corruption in Kurdistan, as the oil contracts were not transparent.
“Hundreds of millions just disappear,” he claimed, adding that it was assumed that the money was ending up in the bank accounts of top leaders.
“The Kurds must take Israel as model for their democracy, the only one in the region,” he said, noting that it could be of use when the Kurds gain independence.Reuters contributed to this report.