On September 25, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on whether or not the Kurdish people in northern Iraq desire independence. With the likelihood that it will result in a “yes” vote, the referendum will have several regional implications, including for Israel. Given their common narratives and geopolitical interests, it is important to understand what the Kurdish referendum means for Israel.
It is first imperative to clarify that Erbil’s intention is not immediate session. Even if the desire for independence results in an overwhelming yes, Erbil knows there is not enough international and regional support nor is there the viability for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq at this time. Rather, Erbil’s timing of the referendum can be explained in three interrelated contexts.
The first is for leverage in negotiations with Baghdad in a post-ISIS Iraq. In 2005, an informal referendum that resulted in an overwhelming 98.9% yes vote for independence was considered to give Erbil leverage when negotiating the 2006 Iraqi constitution, which granted the Kurds the autonomy they have today. Erbil is probably hoping for a similar outcome to use against Baghdad in future negotiations for further autonomy and state-revenue once ISIS is driven out of Iraq.
A yes vote in an official referendum may also give the Iraqi Kurds a formal bid for independence in the future. Though it is widely known the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds desire independence, the 2005 referendum was informal and non-binding. Having a yes result in this referendum will enable the Kurdish parties to have an official and legal bid for independence once an independent Kurdistan becomes a viable possibility.
Moreover, formalizing a future bid for independence may also formalize the possibility of adding Kurdistan as an official member to what some have described as the Middle East NATO. It is widely known that Israel and some of the Arab Sunni states have come closer to normalizing relations with each other to set up security coordination in order to counter actors on the ground such as ISIS. That being said, just as the changing regional dynamics have brought Israel and moderate Arab Sunni states closer together, so too have the regional changes brought the Iraqi Kurds closer to the Arab Sunni states.
On July 4, KRG President Massoud Barzani met with consuls from seven Arab Sunni states to explain why he has called for the referendum and why they should support it. Perhaps to counter Turkey’s backing of Qatar, the Arab Sunni states seemed to begin expressing support for the Kurdish referendum. Hence, given that the Iraqi Kurds’ security force, the Peshmerga, have proven to be the most formidable force on the ground fighting off groups like ISIS, adding Kurdistan to a security coalition between Israel and the Arab Sunni states would be a bonus to such a regional alliance.
One obstacle though for the Kurdish referendum and closer relations with Israel is rooted in their internal divisions. Though most Kurdish parties support the idea of independence, they are divided over the process. For instance, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani wants to hold the referendum in September while other parties want it to go through the Kurdish parliament first, which has not met since October 2015. The Islamic Republic of Iran has exploited this divide by pushing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to halt the referendum altogether and thus prevent closer and open relations with Israel.
Though the KDP has been Israel’s close partner in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK has been held back due to its historically close relations with the Islamic Republic. Iran is opposed to the Kurdish referendum because they want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and know that an independent Kurdistan would be within Israel’s interest. Thus, Iran has been pushing for a halt to the referendum via the PUK in their recent delegation meetings. This is not to suggest that the PUK is against good relations with Israel in principle, as head of the PUK Jala Talabani once shook hands with then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a conference in Greece in April 2008, but they know they are held back from their external patron Iran.
Some scholars have suggested that the best way for the Iraqi Kurds to overcome their differences, reopen parliament, and prepare for independence is through the referendum itself. As Bilal Wahab and Rebwar Karim Mahmoud argue, “Barzani can boost his standing by using the referendum…as an opportunity to reactivate the parliament, commit to good governance, and implement reforms that assuage the KRG populace. The process would also induce the Kurdish parties to iron out their differences.”
Therefore, the most pragmatic step Israel can probably take is to offer morale support for the Kurdish referendum as not just a means for independence, but also as a means of promoting Kurdish democracy and uniting their parties. In doing so, Israel will be helping their Kurdish allies prepare for independence once the time is ripe.