The overwhelming Kurdish vote in support of independence on Monday was endorsed by Israelis of all political views. It built on half a century of Israeli-Kurdish cooperation which commenced when Golda Meir was Foreign Minister. Nahum Admoni, Mossad chief in the 1980s, described this approach on initiating assistance to the Kurds as “definitely humanitarian, an emotional aid to an oppressed minority”.
There were indeed many parallels between Jewish and Kurdish aspirations for a state of their own. Despite the fact that they were many times more numerous that the Jews, the Kurds were dramatically unsuccessful in realising their dream. Spread in their millions over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, they have been persecuted and discriminated against by a host of reactionary regimes.
Signing the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, the World War I allies agreed to endorse the prospect of a state in at least part of Kurdistan. Imperial ambition in the Middle East, Arab opposition and a Turkish resurgence ensured that this agreement was rendered meaningless – and Kurdistan became part of Iraq in 1925.
The British originally promised to make the territory an autonomous region when Iraq gained statehood, but did not enforce its pledge when independence was achieved in 1932.
It was only in the 1980s during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds that British public opinion began to take note. Hundreds of Kurdish villages were destroyed; the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in March 1988, killing 5,000 people, forced the hand of the British government.
Shortly after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, observing the plight of thousands of Kurdish refugees relentlessly pursued by Saddam’s armies and escaping to the refuge of ice-clad mountains, the British Prime Minister John Major proposed a safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq. This evolved into today’s Kurdish autonomous region. Significantly, Britain cited the 1948 Genocide Convention as a legal justification – an act which conveyed symbolism to Jews.
The Israeli involvement lies in torat haperipheria – the doctrine of the periphery – which Ben-Gurion and his intelligence chiefs, Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel, advocated in the 1950s. It argued for quiet alliances and cooperation with non-Arab nations on the periphery of a hostile Arab world. This included Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia in the late 1950s and stretched to territorially concentrated minorities such as the Kurds and South Sudanese in later years.
The British-born David Kimche, later deputy head of the Mossad, travelled on a non-Israeli passport to Kurdistan to appraise the situation. He was followed by Dov Tamari, a commando unit leader, who explored the idea of a permanent IDF training unit in the Kurdish mountains. This led to periodic six month stints for IDF personnel who trained peshmerga officers in the Marvad programme. Following the Six Day war, captured Soviet arms made their way to Kurdistan.
Today there is an open, but unofficial Israeli presence in Kurdistan. Motorola, Magalcom and Bezeq are all there. There is investment in oil exploration. Israelis – many of Kurdish origin – visit cities such as Erbil by travelling via Amman.
The Kurds’ call for independence has met with a hostile reception in Whitehall and from the White House. Boris Johnson described it as a distraction from more pressing priorities. The US does not wish to antagonise Ankara and weaken Turkish links to NATO. Even Netanyahu is careful with his words when the subject of Kurds in Turkey is invoked. Yet as the Jews understood in 1948, windows of opportunity occur very rarely.
When asked in the Knesset in 1975 why Israel had acted so positively in support of the Kurds, Yitzhak Rabin instinctively replied: “Because we are Jews!” Many in this country will undoubtedly identify with that sentiment.
Colin Shindler’s latest book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, is published by Rowman and Littlefield.