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13 October, 2010  ▪  Viktor Kaspruk

Relations Between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds Continued to Grow

Alon is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern Studies at The New School and at New York University and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.

Alon is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University's School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts "Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir," a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors.

Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR.

He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.

The relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurds has been developing and evolving for more than two decades.  It was Saddam Hussein’s enmity towards Israel, especially after the first Gulf war, that first encouraged Israel to move toward further strengthening relations with the Kurds.  Since President Clinton took a special interest in protecting the Iraqi Kurds after the atrocities committed against them in the late eighties, Israel has become a strong ally with the US on this matter.  Over the years, Israel has provided training, military hardware, and intelligence to Kurds in Northern Iraq, and since the 2003 Iraq war, relations between Israel and Iraqi Kurds have continued to grow, as both sides see that mutual cooperation is in their best national interest.  It is important to note that Israelis have generally demonstrated sympathy toward Iraqi Kurds, and historically there was hardly any enmity between the two sides.  By and large, both Israel and the Kurds have at one point or another faced common hostility from Arab states.

Obviously, Israel would like to have normal relations with all Arab countries—including Iraq—but Israel will not support elements within the Iraqi central government that demonstrates any hostility toward the Kurds.  Israel will not relinquish its relations with Iraqi Kurds because over time this relationship has become strategic and important.

President Obama’s offer to negotiate directly with Iran, and the subsequent negotiations that took place, did not necessarily represent a softening of US attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program.  Engaging Iran is necessary, not only to achieve a possible negotiations breakthrough, but at minimum to establish where Iran really stands on the nuclear issue so that corresponding US policies can develop to deal with Iranian positions. 

Moreover, it was necessary for the United States to negotiate directly with Iran in order to gain support from the international community should sanctions against Iran become necessary.  In addition, the US needed to address the excuse that a lack of direct contact between the US and Iran was the cause behind Iran’s intransigence. I believe that unless negotiations lead to an acceptable solution to Iran’s nuclear proliferation, it is not likely that the United States will normalize relations with Iran.

The United States cannot afford to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, as this may force Israel to take unilateral action against Iran.  If the United States eventually normalizes relations with Iran, they will have to be based on the assumption that Iran will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, and that Israel itself is satisfied that Iran has abandoned its nuclear ambitions.  Short of this, I do not see how the United States will normalize relations with Iran.

I believe that the rift in public rhetoric between Israel and Turkey is temporary, and that their strategic alliance will remain strong, especially because Turkey wants to continue to strengthen its leadership position in the region.  The Kurds—Turkish, Iraqi, or otherwise—are no substitute for relations between Israel and Turkey.  From the Israeli perspective, Turkey is an important ally, and Israel will do everything in its power to maintain the viability of strategic cooperation with Turkey.  One has to keep in mind that Turkey and Israel are the two regional superpowers, and their alliance has and will continue to contribute to the balance of power and regional stability.

Israel—for obvious reasons—is likely to support any group, Kurdish or otherwise, that opposes the Iranian regime.  Iran’s leaders have threatened Israel existentially, and certainly Israel has no sympathy for the Iranian clergy, especially as they sponsor Hezbollah, Hamas, and other proxy groups who oppose Israel’s very existence.

The Kurdish situation in Turkey has dramatically improved in the last few years.  I believe the Turkish government has made remarkable progress in addressing Turkish Kurdish grievances. As long as Turkey continues to further social and political reforms, it will continue to diminish the Kurdish separation movement in Turkey.  One example of this is that Kurdish-language television and radio stations that now exist as a cultural  It is difficult to speak of the Kurds as though they are a single collective unit—as long as they are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the likelihood of all Kurds uniting is not strong.  What I envision as a possible future for the Kurds—which out of necessity requires harmony and full cooperation between these four countries—is to provide Kurds with the ability to travel freely throughout Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, which would allow them to interact and develop a more cohesive transnational identity, language, etc.  However, this solution currently remains far-fetched at best, especially considering the current political posturing and lack of cohesive strategy and long term cooperative relations between the countries involved.

Unless there is comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world, it is not likely that diplomatic relations between Israel and Iraq will be established.  Even if Israel establishes full diplomatic relations with the entire Arab world, Iraq will probably be the last state the join.  The Arab Peace Initiative remains the most promising solution for establishing peace between Israel and the Arab world.

While the relationship between President Obama and Israel is somewhat strained, it is by no means on the border of a crisis as some have suggested.   The US and Israel cooperate on so many levels, through military, technology, people-to-people, and other venues of exchange that this setback in their relationship does not represent  a serious rift in their relations.  Although Israel and the United States are working together to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Washington and Jerusalem differ in their approach to restarting negotiations.  The United States and Israel must find some sort of modus operandi in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What is needed to improve the relationship between President Obama and Israel is more direct, active, and forceful engagement from the United States in the peace process, while at the same time paying close attention to Israel’s fears over the Iranian nuclear threat.  From Israel’s perspective, the peace process and the Iranian threat are linked, and Israel would like to see the United States take a more forceful position towards Iran.   Although Netanyahu is taking caution in order to keep his coalition, he will have to act sooner rather than later to respond to the United States’ actions.

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