‘The Jewish People Know What It Is to Struggle for an Independent Homeland:’ Israelis of All Stripes Embrace Kurdish Vote on Independence
As five million Kurds in northern Iraq prepare for Monday’s historic referendum on independence, Israelis from across the political spectrum continue to embrace the prospect of a separate state of Kurdistan – nearly a century after the imperial powers reneged on their promise of Kurdish self-determination.
“I fully support the Kurdish people’s right to national self-determination,” Yair Lapid – chairperson of Israel’s opposition Yesh Atid party and a former finance minister – told The Algemeiner on Sunday.
“The Jewish people know what it is to struggle for an independent homeland and the Kurds have a moral right to a state of their own,” Lapid stressed. Addressing international objections to Monday’s vote, Lapid added: “If the Kurdish people choose to hold a referendum that is their right.”
Lapid’s comments come on top of other recent comments in favor of Kurdish independence in Israel – the only country to support Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s decision to call the referendum.
In August, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to have told a group of visiting Republican congressmen that the Kurds – a largely Muslim nation of 25 million who are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – “are brave, pro-western people who share our values.” In a statement on September 13, Netanyahu confirmed that Israel “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
Netanyahu’s statements were echoed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party, who told a national security conference in Tel Aviv earlier this month that “The Kurds are an ancient, democratic, peace-loving people that have never attacked any country.”
Calling an independent Kurdistan “a partner” that would “separate Iran from Turkey” and “be friendly towards Israel,” Shaked declared: “It is time to help them.”
Leading Israeli security experts are also backing the Kurds, arguing that an independent Kurdistan would boost Israel’s strategic position in the region. Gen. Yair Golan, the former Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF told an audience in Washington, DC in September that a Kurdish state “is basically a good idea that could contribute to stability in the region.” And in an interview with the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, Israeli Professor Yossi Mekelberg, a senior associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, observed that “Israel’s main relations with the Kurdish regional government lie in economic and geostrategic interests.”
“Israel doesn’t want a strong Iran in the region and finding an ally in Iraq’s Kurdistan region will weaken Tehran,” Mekelberg said.
Israeli sympathy for the Kurds stretches back to the first years of the Jewish state, when Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion first raised the “periphery doctrine” – aligning with national minority or pro-western regional partners such as the Kurds and the Lebanese Maronites as one means of stabilizing Israel’s regional position.
At the same time, there is a strong awareness that both nations share similar democratic values – during a meeting with President Barack Obama in 2014, the late Israeli leader Shimon Peres declared, “The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic: one of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women.” Additionally, the suffering endured by the Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – when Kurdish villages and towns were attacked with chemical weapons at the height of a genocidal campaign in the 1980s – is another binding factor.
The almost uniform international opposition to Monday’s independence referendum has been spearheaded by Turkey, Iran and the pro-Tehran Iraqi government in Baghdad. Turkish news outlets supportive of the country’s authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have portrayed the Kurdish vote as a “Zionist” plot to create a “second Israel” in the Middle East.
Some 40,000 Kurdish civilians have been killed by Turkish military forces in a campaign of repression that has lasted for almost four decades. On Sunday, Turkey threatened a potential military response to a “yes” vote in the referendum, accusing the Kurds of “playing with fire” by holding a ballot that undermines “the national security of Turkey…and the national security of Iran.”