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GLOBAL AFFAIRS COLUMN: A ‘Second Israel’ in the Middle East?

['Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill, March 2, 2012. Canadian Press photo']
['Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill, March 2, 2012. Canadian Press photo']

In the recent Kurdish referendum on independence, the citizens of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, to no one’s surprise, voted overwhelmingly to create a sovereign state.

The yes side gained almost 93 per cent of the vote.

In the run-up to the vote, opponents of the move tried to smear the Kurds by claiming that they were, in effect, in the pay of Israel.

The “proof?” A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “While Israel rejects terror in any form, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”

Turkey and Iran, as well as the government in Baghdad, then began to spread false news.

“We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq,” Iraqi Vice-President Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister, said at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman.

A number of Turkish media outlets claimed that Kurdish groups had entered into a secret deal with Israel to gain their independence by resettling Jews to the region.

They alleged that Mahmoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), agreed to welcome some 200,000 Israeli Jews of Kurdish origin.

In exchange, Israel would reportedly back Barzani’s bid for Kurdish statehood in the upcoming referendum. Another Turkish paper contended that Barzani is Jewish and comes from a long line of Kurdish rabbis.

“Turkey, don’t be asleep!” one column warned.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency played a role in Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence vote.

Supporters of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Homeland Party protested outside the Israeli embassy in Ankara, claiming that Jerusalem was attempting to establish a “second Israel.”

Diliman Abdulkader, a Kurdish scholar and analyst of Middle East affairs, told Newsweek magazine that such attacks were designed to destroy Kurdish credibility in the region by associating them with Israel and playing on prejudices against Jews.

In Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now serves as foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, described Barzani as a fixer working for “Zionists” bent on causing the disintegration of Muslim states.

Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, also denounced the referendum as a “plot” hatched by Israel and its allies. “The Zionist regime and the world arrogance” – meaning the United States – “are behind this,” he declared.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chair of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects the country’s Supreme Leader, asserted that Kurdistan’s bid for independence from Iraq is an attempt to “create another Israel” in the region.

And Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a senior Iranian cleric, expressed the hope that Kurds would come to their senses and give up the Israeli plot.

In actual fact, the Kurds and Israelis do go back a long way as allies. The relationship dates back many decades, after the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq in the autumn of 1961 under Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president of the KRG.

However, these ties were abruptly stopped in March 1975 following the Algiers Accord between Iraq and Iran that put an end to the Kurdish rebellion.

Tehran as part of the agreement agreed to suspend its aid to the Iraqi Kurds, and Israel did not wish to offend Iran, then an Israeli ally under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

But the 2003 war in Iraq and the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state reinvigorated ties between Israel and the KRG.

The referendum again reminds us of the injustice of a Middle East political order arbitrarily imposed by British and French colonial powers after 1918, one that had left the Kurds betrayed and without a state.

 

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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