Turkey’s Erdogan threatens ties with Israel over support for Kurds

Criticizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence bid, Turkish president says Israeli backing won’t grant referendum ‘legitimacy’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Istanbul, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (Pool photo via AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Istanbul, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (Pool photo via AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said Israel should “review” its support for Iraqi Kurdish independence, warning the Jewish state’s support for the bid could negatively affect diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

“If they do not review, we cannot take a lot of steps that we were about to take with Israel,” Erdogan was quoted by the official Anadolu news agency as saying.

“It is not possible for us to take steps with those who do not see Turkey as a playmaker in the region. Turkey is a playmaker in the region,” he said.

Despite years of close security and intelligence ties, Israel’s diplomatic relations with Turkey have been frosty under Erdogan’s rule, reaching a nadir after Israeli troops raided the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship and killed nine Turkish nationals, who attacked them violently aboard, in May 2010.

Although Jerusalem and Ankara struck a reconciliation deal in August 2016 after years of severed ties following the flotilla incident, Erdogan has continued to publicly chastise Israel in harsh terms over its policies towards the Palestinians and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, in response, called Erdogan’s threat “empty.”

“Erdogan’s threat to freeze ties if Israel continues to support Kurdish independence is empty. The relations are in any case hollow and we don’t take orders from them,” tweeted Lapid, who has advocated for Israel to take a more aggressive approach to Turkey.

Referring to Israel’s support for Monday’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Erdogan, who has threatened military intervention over the vote, warned the Kurds that Israel’s backing “will not save you.”

“Who will recognize your independence? Israel. The world is not about Israel. You should know that the waving of Israeli flags there will not save you,” he said, according to the Hurriyet daily.

Erdogan also said Israel’s support for Kurdish independence would not confer on the referendum results “innocence nor legitimacy.”

Iraqis Kurds carry the Kurdish and Israeli flags in the streets of the northern city of Kirkuk on September 25, 2017, following a referendum on the independence. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

In addition to Erdogan’s threat against Israel over its support for the referendum, Turkish nationalists have claimed the independence vote is meant to create a “second Israel.” A conservative newspaper loyal to Erdogan has pointed to the presence of Israeli flags alongside “so-called Kurdish flags” at rallies organized by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and claimed that the referendum was part of a “Zionist plot.”

Earlier this month, Turkish media published conspiracy theories claiming that Israel was planning to repatriate Israeli Jews of Kurdish origin to Kurdistan after the referendum.

Top Iranian officials have also claimed that the Kurdish independence referendum is part of an Israeli scheme, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s chief of staff saying Tuesday that the vote was a “Zionist plot” meant to fuel violence in the Middle East, following the battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria suffered by the Islamic State terror group.

Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have their own sizable Kurdish minorities, have all strongly condemned the independence referendum, as has Iraq’s federal government.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced his backing for Kurdish independence, on Monday he instructed ministers in his government to avoid speaking out about the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Israeli cabinet minister as saying that “Bibi [Netanyahu] asked us not to” comment on the referendum because it was “too sensitive.”

Monday’s referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan was openly opposed by both the US and Turkey, who may have pressured Netanyahu not to express support for the vote.

Similarly, some Kurdish leaders have balked at overt support from Israel, as they face charges from Arab, Turkish and Iranian leaders that an independent Kurdish state would be a potential “second Israel” — that is, an enemy — in their midst.

However, some Kurds have flaunted support from and ties with the Jewish state, waving Israeli flags at pro-independence rallies.

Results of Monday’s referendum, which are nonbinding, are set to be announced later Tuesday, with many expecting a resounding “yes” vote.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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