James Kirchick writes that Kurds and Israelis have had a fairly good relationship since Israel’s statehood, and has some interesting explanations for it:
The existence or extent of Israel’s intelligence relationship with Kurdistan is officially denied by both parties. When I asked a senior Kurdish intelligence official if the KRG cooperated with the Israelis, he demurred. In line with most Muslim states, Iraq doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, and moves by the KRG to formulate a foreign policy independent of the central government irritate Baghdad. But official relations between an independent or autonomous Kurdistan and Israel could one day prove to be a decisive factor in the chessboard that is Middle Eastern politics, and whatever their present scope, such relations make a great deal of sense. That’s because Kurdistan and Israel, as well as Kurds and Jews as people, share strategic interests and historic commonalities.***
The relationship between Kurds and Jews goes back to ancient times. Jews lived in Kurdistan since the exile of the 10 Tribes in the 8th century BCE. At the community’s height, Kurdish Jews numbered around 50,000, spread between Iran, Turkey, and northern Iraq. Many of them fled for Israel when the Jewish state declared its independence in 1948, and that trickle turned into a flood in the 1950s as life for Jews in Iraq became more and more difficult.
Political relations began in 1965, when David Kimche, one of the founding fathers of the Mossad, visited Kurdistan to meet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s father and then-leader of the Kurds. The meeting came at the behest of the senior Barzani, who was seeking outside support for his people’s fight against the military regime that ruled the country. Kimche returned to Jerusalem urging Israeli support for the Kurds as part of the Jewish state’s outreach to non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey. With the United States, Israel covertly trained the Kurdish paramilitary, or peshmerga, and provided the Kurds with agricultural and technological know-how….
[Kirchick then describes some of the diplomatic reasons that Israelis have stopped supporting the Kurds.]
Beyond the strategic rationale for the Israeli-Kurdish relationship, there exists a deeper, values-based relationship. Both Jews and Kurds are embattled, once-stateless minorities in a region afflicted by obscurantist religious and ethnic movements that seek to sublimate, if not eliminate, religious and ethnic diversity. On one side of this divide lies a version of Sunni Wahabbist extremism and Shia radicalism pledging to rid the Middle East not only of Jews, but of anyone deemed insufficiently Islamic.
Another commonality is that both peoples have prevailed against attempts at extermination. In 1986, Saddam Hussein launched his Anfal campaign against the Kurds, eventually killing more than 200,000. In Halabja, the town about 10 miles from the Iranian border where, in 1988, the Iraqi military deployed poison gas to murder at least 5,000 people, a museum and monument stand to commemorate the dead. The museum’s inner sanctum, a round room with the names of the victims of the attack etched on the walls, evokes Yad Vashem. The city’s cemetery features a sign, “BA’ATH MEMBERS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER.” Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War didn’t endear Palestinians to the Kurds, and general Kurdish indifference to the plight of the Palestinians argues against the trendy theory of “linkage,” which argues that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite to solving a host of other problems in the Muslim world.
The Kurds have proudly defied the anti-Israel theatrics of their Muslim brethren. Speaking with a variety of KRG officials, I heard that they would be more than happy to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel were such a decision within their power. “We have no problems with Israel,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations. “They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them.” In a 2007 television interview, Barzani said, “If an Israeli embassy were opened in Baghdad, we would no doubt open an Israeli consulate in Erbil.” That same year, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sat next to Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, at an international women’s conference in Vienna. The two discussed the peace process and the plight of citizens in Sderot, the rocket-plagued Israeli city on the Gaza border. At the 2008 Socialist International, Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, shook Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s hand.
“We’ve been called ‘the second Israel,’ ” Bakir says. “We cite Israel as a democracy in the Middle East.” The regional forces arrayed against an independent Kurdistan are the same sorts of theocratic and authoritarian ones that tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948 and that have been arrayed against it ever since. “This island of democracy,” he says of Israel, “was seen as a germ,” yet Kurds take heart in its success as an independent nation. In light of their experience as a stateless people continually subjected to discrimination and genocide by the regimes under which they have lived, the Kurds have woefully adopted a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains.” They also have the Jews.