As Israeli Port Accepts Kurdish Oil, Long History of Back-Channel Relations Expected to Continue
When the Kurdish tanker SCF Altai unloaded its cargo at the Israeli oil port of Ashkelon on Monday, it was the latest event in a long history of back-channel relations between the two peoples, analyst Ksenia Svetlova wrote on Israel’s i24 News on Tuesday.
Svetlova, Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 and a fellow at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said “those who monitor Kurdish-Israeli relations were not surprised.”
“The ties between Israel and the Kurds began in the early 1960s, when Israeli intelligence agents operated in Iraqi Kurdistan and helped local authorities,” Svetlova said. “The level of cooperation increased significantly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with Israeli contractors and companies entering Iraqi Kurdistan and routine reports in Iraqi media about Israeli commandos training the Kurdish peshmerga.”
Svetlova wrote that a Kurdish magazine, ‘Israel-Kurd,’ published in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in Arabic and Kurdish, explored Israeli history and politics in depth for its local audience.
“The editors explained that Jews and Kurds are more than just neighbors; they are actually close relatives who share a common ancestor – the biblical patriarch Abraham,” she said. “This view is widespread among Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many believe Abraham was of Kurdish descent.”
“Many Kurds draw close parallels with Israel, also a non-Arab nation encircled by enemies who oppose its independence,” Svetlova said. “Israel’s technological prowess, its well-armed military and the dynamic nature of Israeli society are all major draws for the Kurds, who had never stopped dreaming about an independent Kurdish state.”
She noted that, in the future, a Kurd-Israel alliance, might be possible, but, in the short term, the Kurds were balancing the relations with Iran, to the East, and Turkey, to the West, as well as Iraq, to the South, and Syria, to the Southwest.
“Economically, Iraqi Kurdistan depends on Turkey – Kurdish oil is piped to the Turkish port of Jihan [also known as Ceyahn]. Turkey is both the largest market for any Kurdish production and one of the largest importers of its goods,” she said.
The Kurdish Regional Government pipeline bypasses Baghdad’s federal pipeline system, which has been a major source of enmity. Reuters said the Kurdish pipeline is sending about 120,000 barrels per day to the Turkish port, and the KRG hopes to export 400,000 bpd by year-end.
“Iran is also important to the Kurds in Iraq, both as an immediate neighbor and a country with a significant Kurdish population,” she said, but “Iran has an interest in containing the Kurds in Iraq to dampen any nationalistic fervor it its own Kurdish-populated areas.”
In Syrian Kurdistan, “a draft constitution that was presented by the ruling Kurdish party doesn’t view the sharia as a basis of legislation, unlike the constitutions in Arab countries. While radical Islamic organizations such as ‘The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’ (ISIL or ISIS) gain popularity among Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are generally drawn to much more moderate versions of Islam and strive to a modern state where women have equal rights.”
As for the Kurdish-Israel alliance, Svetlova concludes that “for now it seems that the parties will increase the volume of their ties,” but “the clandestine nature of relations will remain.”
Svetlova said on one side of the Kurdish question is “Iran, an important regional actor that doesn’t favor a Kurdish rapprochement with Israel.” On the other “Israel, too, has been reluctant to publicize the relationship so as not to endanger its relations with Turkey.”
“If Iraqi Kurds finally achieve independence, their state, at least in the beginning, will be too weak and vulnerable to establish official relations with Jerusalem, so for the time being an Israeli embassy in Kirkuk – the city known as Kurdish Jerusalem – is unlikely.”