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‘It makes us feel hopeful’: Iraqi Kurds watch as Israel befriends old Arab foes

Many welcome normalization as positive sign for their own independence dreams, but some analysts say rapprochement unlikely due to geopolitics, despite shared history

Iraqi Kurds wave an Israeli flag and Kurdish flags during an event urging people to vote in an independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, September 16, 2017. (Safin Hamed/AFP)
Iraqi Kurds wave an Israeli flag and Kurdish flags during an event urging people to vote in an independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, September 16, 2017. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

ARBIL, Iraq (AFP) — Decades ago, Iraq’s Kurds and Israel shared a common enemy and what felt like being targeted in parallel persecutions.

Today, Iraqi Kurds — long accused of cozy ties with the Jewish state — are watching on as Israel befriends historically hostile Arab countries.

Just weeks after signing US-sponsored normalization deals with Israel, Bahraini officials are visiting Tel Aviv and cargo ships from the United Arab Emirates are docking at Haifa.

It has been a speedy turnaround for the Arab countries that had long sworn to isolate and boycott Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians.

And it’s long overdue for many in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, who said they had always been demonized as Israeli “agents” during their own struggle for independence.

An Iraqi Kurdish man holds a picture frame with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani during a demonstration outside the UN Office in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous region, on October 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

“It’s good Arab countries are normalizing with Israel,” said Himdad Najat, a 38-year-old English language teacher in the regional capital of Arbil.

But, he pointed out, “there’s an emotional link between Kurds and Jews because of the injustices we both lived.”

Kurds make up sizeable communities in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey but have long faced persecution in those countries and do not have a state of their own.

Jews had also faced centuries of ill-treatment and did not have their own state until Israel was created in 1948.

When fearful Jews fled Iraq for Israel, they often did so through the Kurdish region.

‘The sooner, the better’

As Arab hostility toward Israel intensified, the new state tried to reach out to non-Arab communities in the Middle East.

It found an opening with Iraq’s Kurds who, like Israel, were opposed to the central government in Baghdad.

Israel then sought to provide humanitarian and military aid to Kurds who were chafing under strongman Saddam Hussein’s brutal military campaigns in the north throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2017, Israel backed a controversial independence referendum in northern Iraq, even as Arbil’s allies including the United States opposed the vote.

Ahead of the referendum, Kurdish activist Nabaz Rashad was enthusiastically campaigning in favor of independence.

Nabaz Rashad, 35, an activist enthusiastically campaigning for Kurdish independence, speaks during an interview with AFP at his office in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan region, on November 26, 2020. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

Many of his Arab friends across Iraq and other countries criticized his efforts, saying a Kurdish state would establish a “second Israel in the Middle East.”

Now, 35-year-old Rashad looks at the wave of normalization deals with bitterness.

“It’s pure hypocrisy,” he told AFP.

Still, he hoped it could bring stability to the Middle East, a region torn apart by conflict for decades.

“Besides, as a Kurd it gives me hope when I see a new country is recognized or born,” he said.

“It makes us feel hopeful that one day Kurds will have their own state.”

‘Best days in the past’

Iraqi Kurdistan is already ruled as an autonomous region, has its own security forces and manages its own land borders with neighboring Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Rebwar Babakye, an MP who heads the foreign relations committee in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, said Iraq should normalize ties with Israel to boost regional peace.

“The sooner the better,” he told AFP. “It could help Arab countries develop scientific and academic research through exchange programs, as Israel is the leading country in the area when it comes to scientific and technology research.”

Iranians burn an Israeli and a US flag during an anti-US protest in the capital Tehran on January 4, 2020, over the killings during a US airstrike of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The Kurdish region cannot do it alone because Baghdad manages foreign policy but, Babakye said, “if an Israeli embassy opens in Baghdad tomorrow, the next day their consulate will be open in Arbil.”

Despite their historic links, rapprochement between Israel and Iraq’s Kurds remains unlikely, said analyst Hiwa Othman.

For years, the Kurds sought to leverage their connection to Israel to get access to a world superpower, the United States.

“Today, the US is in Arbil and Kurds do not need a middleman — so they do not need to have a political relationship with Israel,” Othman told AFP.

Political analyst Hiwa Othman speaks during an interview with AFP at his office in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan region, on November 9, 2020. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

He added that, far more than Bahrain or the UAE, Iraq’s Kurds have to also manage sensitive ties with Ankara — and Tehran — which both wield considerable sway in Arbil and oppose both Kurdish independence and Israel.

Israel may assess that ties to the Kurds pale in comparison to the big diplomatic fish it has already netted, said Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Now that Israel has normalized with the UAE and Bahrain, and with Sudan on the way, they are looking at Saudi — not at the Kurds,” said Wahab.

“The better days of that relationship are in the past, not the future.”

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