by Marsha B. Cohen
One of the more remarkable aspects of the recent news coverage of Iraq — the Maliki government’s loss of control over the northern region of the country, the deadly confrontations taking place between Iraqi Shia and Sunnis, and the clashes between Kurds and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL or ISIS) — is the absence of any mention of Israel.
Commonalities between the Kurdish quest for a long-denied state of their own and Israel’s struggle to survive in a sea of geopolitical enemies are ubiquitous in reports on the Kurdish struggle, both in the Israeli press and among Israel’s supporters abroad. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see Kurdish separatism invoked and idealized as a reflection of the quest to establish a Jewish state, underscored by imagined historical parallels between Jews and Kurds. For example, in an essay titled, “Surprising Ties between Israel and the Kurds,” in Middle East Quarterly’s Summer 2014 issue, Ofra Bengio, a senior research fellow specializing in Kurdish affairs at Tel Aviv University, points out several of these perceived parallels:
Both are relatively small nations (15 million Jews and 30 million Kurds), traumatized by persecutions and wars. Both have been leading life and death struggles to preserve their unique identity, and both have been delegitimized and denied the right to a state of their own. In addition, both are ethnically different from neighboring Arabs, Persians, and Turks, who represent the majority in the Middle East.
The idealized goals and strategies of sovereignty seeking Kurdish separatists are often contrasted with those of Palestinian Arabs, as illustrated by Victor Sharpe at the American Thinker:
…(A)fter the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds displayed great political and economic wisdom. How different from the example of the Gazan Arabs who, when foolishly given full control over the Gaza Strip by Israel, chose not to build hospitals and schools, but instead bunkers and missile launchers. To this they have added the imposition of sharia law, with its attendant denigration of women and non-Muslims.
The Kurdish experiment, in at least the territory’s current quasi-independence, has shown the world a decent society where all its inhabitants, men and women, enjoy far greater freedoms than can be found anywhere else in the Arab and Muslim world — and certainly anywhere else in Iraq, which is fast descending into ethnic chaos now that the U.S. military has left.
For decades, Israel has been a silent stakeholder in northern Iraq, training and arming its restive Kurds. Massimiliano Fiore, a fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, cites a CIA document found in the US Embassy in Tehran and subsequently published, which reportedly attested that the Kurds aided Israel’s military in the June 1967 (Six Day) War by launching a major offensive against the Iraqi Army. This kept Iraq from joining the other Arab armies in Israel, in return for which, “after the war, massive quantities of Soviet equipment captured from the Egyptians and Syrians were transferred to the Kurds.” Former Mossad operative Eliezer Tsafrir has described in detail the decade of cooperation between 1965-75 of Israel’s Mossad and Iran’s SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, in arming and training Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces. That cooperation ceased when, without warning, the Shah and Saddam Hussein made a secret deal that abruptly ended the Israeli-Iranian partnership in northern Iraq.
The First Gulf War in 1991 gave Kurds a safe haven with an unprecedented degree of autonomy in the no-fly zone enforced by the US-led Coalition. In oil-rich northern Iraq, Kurds held regional parliamentary elections in May 1992, establishing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Jacques Neriah, a retired colonel who served as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and as deputy head for assessment of Israeli military intelligence, explains in a 2012 report published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs:
After the collapse of the Kurdish uprising of March 1991, which broke out after Saddam Hussein’s defeat by the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi troops recaptured most of the Kurdish areas and 1.5 million Kurds abandoned their homes and fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders. It is estimated that close to 20,000 Kurds died from exhaustion, hunger, cold, and disease. On 5 April 1991, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 688, which demanded that Iraq end its measures against the Kurds and allow immediate access to international humanitarian organizations. This was the first international document to mention the Kurds by name since the League of Nations’ arbitration of Mosul in 1925.
A decade ago, Seymour Hersh called attention to Israel’s close ties with the Kurds. Hersh’s “Annals of National Security: Plan B,” published in the New Yorker is noteworthy, particularly in light of mounting criticism against the Obama administration’s handling of the current crisis. US officials interviewed by Hersh told him that by the end of 2003, “Israel had concluded that the Bush Administration would not be able to bring stability or democracy to Iraq, and that Israel needed other options.” One of those options was expanding Israel’s long-standing relationship with Iraqi Kurds and “establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.” Although the reliability of Hersh’s sources was challenged at the time, they have been affirmed by more recent articles and reports. Neriah, writing in August 2012, cites numerous reports in the Israeli media about the activities of Israeli security and military personnel working for Israeli firms in Kurdistan:
According to Israeli newspapers, dozens of Israelis with a background in elite combat training have been working for private Israeli companies in northern Iraq, helping Kurds there establish elite antiterror units. Reports say that the Kurdish government contracted Israeli security and communications companies to train Kurdish security forces and provide them with advanced equipment.
Shlomi Michaels, an Israeli-American entrepreneur, and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom provided “strategic consultation on economic and security issues” to the Kurds, according to Neriah, although the Israeli government denied any official involvement.
Tons of equipment, including motorcycles, tractors, sniffer dogs, systems to upgrade Kalashnikov rifles, bulletproof vests, and first-aid items have been shipped to Iraq’s northern region, with most products stamped “Made in Israel.”The Kurds had insisted that the cooperation be kept secret, fearing that exposure of the projects would motivate terror groups to target their Jewish guests. Recent warnings that Al-Qaeda might be planning an attack on Kurdish training camps prompted a hasty exit of all Israeli trainers from the northern region. In response to the report, the Defense Ministry said: “We haven’t allowed Israelis to work in Iraq, and each activity, if performed, was a private initiative, without our authorization, and is under the responsibility of the employers and the employees involved.”
Laura Rozen, writing in Mother Jones in 2008, offered a less benign view of Michaels’ activities in Kurdistan. Besides promoting corruption through kickbacks, Michaels attempted to sell — for $1 million — a dossier to the CIA that would prove Saddam Hussein had met with Ukrainian officials in order to develop a covert chemical weapons program. Rozen also linked the 2005 AIPAC spy scandal to Israeli involvement in Kurdistan. In 2004, US intelligence agencies had heard rumors that Iranian agents planned to target Israeli and US personnel operating in northern Iraq. Larry Franklin, who worked for the Pentagon, had been caught leaking the intelligence to Washington hawks. That’s how he was was recruited by the FBI for a July 2004 sting operation that informed AIPAC officials about the alleged threat to Israelis operating in northern Iraq. Franklin pled guilty to leaking classified information and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In her Middle East Quarterly essay, Bengio also mentions many of Hersh’s claims about Israeli involvement in Kurdistan a decade earlier, which she cautiously avers “remain unproven,” drawing upon Neriah’s account of Michaels’ adventures (without naming names):
The Yedi’ot Aharonot newspaper published an exclusive regarding Israel’s training of peshmergas, the Kurdish paramilitary force. Another Israeli source mentioned the activities of an Israeli company in the construction of an international airport in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The same source revealed “For their part, Iraqi sources, especially Shiite ones, have published lists of scores of Israeli companies and enterprises active in Iraq through third parties.
Less than a year ago, Lazar Berman of the Times of Israel, under the optimistic headline, “Is a Free Kurdistan, and a New Israeli Ally, Upon Us?” quoted Kurdish journalist Ayub Nuri who argued that Kurds were “deeply sympathetic to Israel and an independent Kurdistan will be beneficial to Israel.” Fast forward a year later to Neriah’s article titled, “The fall of Mosul could become the beginning of Kurdish quest for independence,” where he says nothing about the stakes for Israel. Would an increasingly independent Kurdistan continue to look to Israel as its patron?
Or will Kurdistan fully join an anti-ISIS Iraqi alliance, backed jointly, if discreetly, by Iran, with the approval of the US? Any scenario in which Iran is part of the solution, rather than the underlying problem, is a nightmare for Israel. “[W]e would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, told Reuters.
After so many decades of trying to make use of the Kurdish dream of independence as a narrative and nuisance against its enemies, Israel stands at the cusp of being the biggest loser in whatever comes next in strife-ridden Iraq.
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yuval Steinitz. Credit: Daniel Bar-On