Last week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan drew the ire of all its neighbors, including the central government in Baghdad. Yet a bit farther afield, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was offering vocal support for the vote, a position that reflected decades of quiet relations between Israel and Irbil. In an email interview, Bilal Wahab, a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discusses the history and diplomatic impact of Israeli-Kurdish ties and what Israel’s support for Iraqi Kurds means for other Kurds in the region.
WPR: How far back does official Israeli support for the Kurds go, and what has the nature of their relationship been over the past decade or so?
Bilal Wahab: Netanyahu first publicly voiced support for an independent Kurdish state in June 2014, as the threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State was rising. He reiterated such sentiments recently as the residents of Iraqi Kurdistan were heading to the polls in a unilateral, internationally nonbinding referendum. The leaders of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, were happy to receive the Israeli support, given the international opposition to the Kurdish move. Kurdish leaders, however, could not openly celebrate Israeli encouragement for fear of repercussions from their neighbors, who often link aspirations for Kurdish independence with Zionism.