How can you characterize the relations between South Kurdistan and Israel?
OB: When analyzing Israel's relations with Southern Kurdistan or Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) one should differentiate between two levels: open relations and the tacit ones. On the open and public level no relations seem to exist at all. Yes, Israeli officials do declare from time to time their sympathy with the Kurds and their support to a Kurdish state but such statements are as a rule met with dead silence from Kurdish officials. On the other hand behind the scenes there is quite a lot of activity, including on the cultural, security and most important economic level where Israel was reported to have been buying Kurdish oil and thus assisting Kurdistan to weather the severe economic crisis.
What is the Israeli stance toward the referendum for independence?
OB: So far, Israel is the only state or one of the few that has declared in the voice of many of its officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself its support for Kurdistan independence. Unlike other regional and international states that have adopted a wavering or negative stance, Israel has firm position on this issue, for various moral, strategic and political considerations. Mr. Netanyahu has stated recently his positive attitude towards the establishment of a Kurdish state in a meeting with 33 American congressmen saying that the Kurds are a “brave, pro-Western people who share our values.” Clearly the timing has to do with the approaching referendum and the need to impress the idea on the American congressmen and through them on the American administration. Since the administration has attempted to postpone the referendum if not to stop it altogether, such
declarations on the part of Netanyahu can be interpreted as a challenge to Washington or an attempt to convince it to support the Kurds endeavor for independence.
What will be the implications of a Kurdish state on the Middle East?
OB: Those parties who oppose the establishment of a Kurdish state keep warning that such a move would bring about catastrophe to Kurdistan, cause civil war with Iraq and destabilize the Middle East. There are however counter arguments which justify the existence of independent Kurdistan. First, the Kurdish region suffered the worst catastrophes when it was part of the Iraqi state as evidenced in the Halabja and Anfal genocide in 1988. Second, the last hundred years witnessed unending wars between the Kurds and the central government precisely because the Kurdish and Arab national movements could not coexist. As for civil war, since 2003 it is raging in Iraq between Sunnis and Shi`is rather than between Arabs and Kurds. Thirdly, the Middle East suffers from instability not because of the Kurds but because of the regimes which wrought havoc on their societies. Furthermore, a Kurdish state which is more tolerant and democratic than its neighbors and less inclined towards political Islam may be a stabilizing factor for the region and this is exactly what frightens the neighboring countries.
What countries are expected to recognize an independent Kurdish state?
OB: Recognition of the Kurdish state is a most tricky question. For sure, the Kurdish leadership is aware of it that is why Kurdish delegations have been roaming the world to convince state leaders to recognize the Kurdish state once they declare it. Some states have sent positive signals but one cannot be sure if they will stick to their promise when a declaration goes into effect. Indeed, recognition might be a very long process like the case of Kosovo for example. Who will be the pioneers it is not sure yet, but once it is a fait accompli it will be easier for leaders to make their decision.
Will Israel recognize a Kurdish state?
OB: Israel might indeed be one of the first countries to recognize a Kurdish state as it had done with the new state South Sudan on 10 July 2011 one day after it declared independence. A comparison between Kurdistan and South Sudan is in place because of a wide range of similarities between the two cases. So, in an ideal world this similarity should lead world countries to immediately recognize Kurdistan as many of them, including the US, had done in the South Sudanese case. Indeed, the referendum may be used as a litmus test for examining the international community approach towards the Kurds, whether it is fair and just or suffers from biases and double standards.
Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, and author of The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.