A different world for Iraqi Kurds as Arabs normalise with Israel

Despite historic links, rapprochement between Israel and Iraq’s Kurds remains unlikely, said analyst Hiwa Othman.
Friday 27/11/2020
Members of the Kurdish Jewish community hold Kurdish and Israeli flags during a 2017 demonstration in Jerusalem in support of the referendum on independence in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. (AFP)
Members of the Kurdish Jewish community hold Kurdish and Israeli flags during a 2017 demonstration in Jerusalem in support of the referendum on independence in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. (AFP)

ERBIL--Today, Iraqi Kurds — long accused of cosy ties with the Jewish state — are watching on with amazement as Israel befriends historically hostile Arab countries.

Normalisation between Arab countries and Israel are changing geostrategic realities for them.

Just weeks after signing US-sponsored normalisation deals with Israel, Bahraini officials are visiting Tel Aviv and cargo ships from the United Arab Emirates are docking at Haifa.

It has been a speedy turnaround for the Arab countries that had long sworn to isolate and boycott Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians.

And it’s long overdue for many in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, who said they had always been demonised as Israeli “agents” during their own struggle for independence.

The bond of injustice

“It’s good Arab countries are normalising with Israel,” said Himdad Najat, a 38-year-old English language teacher in the regional capital of Erbil.

But, he pointed out, “there’s an emotional link between Kurds and Jews because of the injustices we both lived.”

Kurds make up sizeable communities in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey but have long faced persecution in those countries and do not have a state of their own.

Jews had also faced centuries of ill-treatment and did not have their own state until Israel was created in 1948.

When fearful Jews fled Iraq for Israel in the 20th and 21st centuries, they often did so through the Kurdish region.

The sooner, the better

As Arab hostility toward Israel intensified, the new state tried to reach out to non-Arab communities in the Middle East.

It found an opening with Iraq’s Kurds who, like Israel, were opposed to the central government in Baghdad.

Omar Farhadi, an elderly Iraqi Kurd points to a frame showing a stylized Star of David at the Museum of Education in Arbil , on July 5, 2020. (AFP)
Omar Farhadi, an elderly Iraqi Kurd points to a frame showing a stylized Star of David at the Museum of Education in Arbil , on July 5, 2020. (AFP)

Israel then sought to provide humanitarian and military aid to Kurds who were chafing under strongman Saddam Hussein’s military campaigns in the north throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2017, Israel backed a controversial independence referendum in northern Iraq, even as Erbil’s allies including the United States opposed the vote.

Ahead of the referendum, Kurdish activist Nabaz Rashad was enthusiastically campaigning in favour of independence.

Many of his Arab friends across Iraq and other countries criticised his efforts, saying a Kurdish state would establish a “second Israel in the Middle East.”

Now, 35-year-old Rashad looks at the wave of “normalisation” deals with bitterness.

“It’s pure hypocrisy,” he said.

Still, he hoped it could bring stability to the Middle East, a region torn apart by conflict for decades.

“Besides, as a Kurd it gives me hope when I see a new country is recognised or born,” he said.

“It makes us feel hopeful that one day Kurds will have their own state.”

A call for normalisation

Iraqi Kurdistan is already ruled as an autonomous region, has its own security forces and manages its own land borders with neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Rebwar Babakye, an MP who heads the foreign relations committee in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, said Iraq should normalise ties with Israel to boost regional peace.

“The sooner the better,” he said. “It could help Arab countries develop scientific and academic research through exchange programmes, as Israel is the leading country in the area when it comes to scientific and technology research.”

The Kurdish region cannot do it alone because Baghdad manages foreign policy but, Babakye said, “if an Israeli embassy opens in Baghdad tomorrow, the next day their consulate will be open in Erbil.”

Despite their historic links, rapprochement between Israel and Iraq’s Kurds remains unlikely, said analyst Hiwa Othman.

For years, the Kurds sought to leverage their connection to Israel to get access to a world superpower, the United States.

“Today, the US is in Erbil and Kurds do not need a middleman — so they do not need to have a political relationship with Israel,” Othman said.

He added that, far more than Bahrain or the UAE, Iraq’s Kurds have to also manage sensitive ties with Ankara — and Tehran — which both wield considerable sway in Erbil and and oppose both Kurdish independence and Israel.

Israel may assess that ties to the Kurds pale in comparison to the big diplomatic fish it has already netted, said Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Now that Israel has normalised with the UAE and Bahrain, and with Sudan on the way, they are looking at Saudi — not at the Kurds,” said Wahab.

“The better days of that relationship are in the past, not the future.”