Kurdistan first

An alliance with the Kurds could open the door for Israel to form true, reliable and sustainable relations with other minorities in the region.

Kurds protesting near Syrian-Turkish border (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurds protesting near Syrian-Turkish border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following the collapse of the outdated Sykes-Picot Agreement and the disintegration of Arab republics in the Middle East, Israel must consider its interactions in the region.
For the foreseeable future, the prospects do not look promising for a major improvement in ties with the two leading non-Arab states in the region – Iran and Turkey.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has undoubtedly been Israel’s most dangerous enemy, and it will probably remain that as long as the ayatollahs stay in power.
Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reign, Turkey is not expected to change its basic hostility toward Israel, despite the signing of an agreement between the two countries at the end of June. Erdogan’s goal is to become the supreme leader of the Sunni world.
He supports the efforts of radical Islamists, such as Hamas and Jabhat al-Nusra, and is playing a double game with ISIS.
Currently, the Sunni camp is relatively weak. The Palestinian issue is an obstacle for Israel in its efforts to improve relations with Sunni regimes. But even without this obstacle, Israel’s relationship with these regimes can only improve in a limited way.
The Kurdish people, however, which numbers between 30 million and 35 million, but lacks a country of its own, has the potential to be a long-term strategic ally for Israel.
Since the days of the Alliance of the Periphery, developed by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s relationship with the Kurdish nation has been warm and at times even close.
This relationship, which throughout Israel’s history has always been conducted in a low profile, might be ripe for change.
Officials in Washington, as well as in Moscow, are also starting to understand the important role the Kurdish people plays in the Middle East in a variety of ways: The Kurds prevent the spread of radical Islam and act as a barrier to prevent its continued proliferation; they are a trained and reliable military force fighting against ISIS that consistently has the upper hand; they are a force to be reckoned with in a rapidly changing Middle East in which Arab countries – namely Syria and Iraq – have disintegrated to the point of no return.
From the Israeli viewpoint, the Kurds are a reliable and powerful people who were never tempted to engage in anti-Israeli rhetoric, and even look to Israel in the hopes that one day they too will achieve a homeland for their people.
The pact with the Kurdish people is a natural alliance between non-Arab minorities in the region. The power of the Arab states to resist the Kurdish national movement has weakened now that they are falling apart.
Turkey and Iran are the only significant countries that still oppose the formation of a Kurdish state, and the fact that Iran is opposed to this is only another reason for Israel to support the Kurds.
The Kurds have been busy creating facts on the ground. In northern Syria, they currently dominate a broad strip of land known as Rojava (aka West Kurdistan), which has been declared autonomous. ISIS, which is in control nearby, is in defensive mode there.
The Kurds are hoping that talks in Geneva will lead to a federation arrangement that will grant them autonomous status.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds in northern Iraq took advantage of the situation to declare themselves an autonomy called Basur, or Southern Kurdistan. They control major oil fields there and have extensive relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US and Europe. Iraq is currently deliberating whether to hold a referendum on the question of Kurdish secession.
The Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and the vast majority in eastern Turkey. The strengthening of the Kurds in the region is one of the factors that led to Erdogan to restore relations with Israel.
In light of the Kurds’ increasingly strong lobby in Washington, and their mutual sympathy with Israel, it was in Erdogan’s interests to try to bring about a cooling in Kurdish-Israeli relations.
But creating an even closer connection to the Kurds is exactly what the Israeli government should do at this time.
Israel should take a number of steps to extend a helping hand to the Kurds: Israel must become the vanguard in the push for Kurdish self-determination and help promote their national aspirations.
Israel must aid the Kurds in non-military areas, such as education, health and agriculture.
Israel must strengthen its relations especially with the Kurdish community in Iraq, including trade relations. There is a host of products that Israel could be importing from Kurdistan instead of from other countries. Israeli business owners who made aliya from Kurdistan can act as an important bridge so that economic and cultural relations can be forged. Eventually, this could lead to the establishment of an Israel-Kurdistan Chamber of Commerce.
The Jews are a minority in the Middle East and don’t have many natural allies in the region. An alliance with the Kurds could open the door for Israel to form true, reliable and sustainable relations with other minorities in the region.
The writer is a former government minister for the Likud party and member of the security cabinet. He currently serves as a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.