With an eye on developments in Iraq, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed open support Sunday for Kurdish independence.
In a policy address in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said that among the challenges facing Israel was the need to build cooperation with moderate countries in the region to help fend off the threat posed by extremists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
He said Israel must back efforts to support Jordan, which borders both Syria and Iraq, so that the insurgency doesn’t spread there.
“It is upon us to support the international efforts to strengthen Jordan, and support the Kurds’ aspiration for independence,” Netanyahu said. The Kurds, he said, are a “fighting people that have proven political commitment and political moderation, and they’re also worthy of their own political independence.”
He did not specify whether he meant only Iraqi Kurds, or Kurds living across a broad stretch of the region in countries including Iran, Syria and Turkey. Those countries, as well as Iraq, have long opposed creation of a Kurdish state including territory now within their borders.
Netanyahu’s words were the first explicit comments on the subject after other Israeli officials hinted at this broadly.
In talks with Secretary of State John F. Kerry last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quoted as saying that “Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion.”
President Shimon Peres also mentioned the subject in a meeting with President Obama last week as part of his tour before stepping down next month. “The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state,” Peres said later, adding that the Kurdish entity already was democratic.
This series of comments came amid media reports that Israel recently received a first shipment of crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, shipped via tanker that was loaded in a Turkish port.
According to media reports, Israel has maintained ties with the Kurds for years, albeit discreetly. This is the first time the government has openly called for Kurdish independence.
Israel also has tried to avoid taking a public stand on political strife in neighboring countries.
So far, it has been careful to stay out of the politics of the civil war in Syria and limit its involvement, at least publicly, to targeted security concerns and humanitarian matters.
Netanyahu also said that recent developments show Israel must maintain military control in the Jordan Valley, meaning that it would have to keep a long-term military presence in the West Bank.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.