For those familiar with the Israeli scholarly establishment, Professor Ofra Bengio is a familiar figure: An expert on the Middle East who speaks with an authority based on deep knowledge and experience. Born in Aleppo, Syria and having grown up in Israel, she has studied the modern Middle East all her life, while living through some of its most momentous days. She completed a BA in Modern History of the Middle East and English Language from Tel Aviv University (TAU) in 1966 — before the young Israeli state had occupied the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1986, she finished a Master’s degree there on the same subject. She wrote her dissertation on “The Kurdish Struggle for Autonomy in Iraq, 1970-1974,” a topic that was very close to Israel’s heart, since the country had worked closely with Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein —until their partner, the shah of Iran, made up with Saddam and abandoned the Kurds.
Today Bengio is widely recognized as Israel’s leading authority on Kurds. She heads the Kurdish Studies Program at TAU’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and her book, The Kurds in Iraq: Building a state Within a State is well-known among experts in and students of the field.
IranWire spoke to Professor Bengio to get her take on the impending referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Do you think holding a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is a good idea? Can it lead to good results for Kurds and the rest of the region?
It can lead to good results for the Kurds and that’s the most important thing. The Kurds have been fighting for 100 years, spilling their blood to achieve independence. They had suffered the Halabja and Anfal genocides, which cost them about 180,000 people. All their agreements with the central government have failed and now they have reached a point when they are strong enough to make the move.
As for the region, one hears about threats and that this move will destabilize the region. But what kind of stability are we talking about? Is there stability in Iraq? In Syria? Iraq has been mired in civil war since 2003, not because of the Kurds but because of the Sunni-Shia divide. On the contrary, a strong government in Kurdistan might be a stabilizing force because it will be pro-Western, moderate, tolerant and open to minorities. Moreover, there are no radical and extremist Islamist forces in Kurdistan. It might be a prosperous region — as it used to be for the last 20 years until the advent of the Islamic State — thus helping the region to prosper as well.
But the regional countries have made it clear that they won’t tolerate an independent Kurdistan. What can you say about that?
This is a campaign of threats against [Masoud] Barzani Masoud Barzani [president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region] so that he will not carry out the referendum. Turkey is a kind of a midwife for independent Kurdistan without which the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) wouldn’t have survived and prospered. Thanks to Turkey and the oil pipeline which it allowed to build through its territories the KRG became prosperous and stable. In my opinion the threats of Turkey are due to its domestic politics. I am not talking about the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party, which originated in Turkey but has supporters across Kurdish areas] but about the MHP [The ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party]. They want to show [Devlet] Bahceli [the MHP’s leader] that they are very ultra-nationalist to keep their coalition for the coming elections in 2019. Bacheli was the main force behind pushing the government to adopt an extreme stance against the referendum. But I don’t think Turkey will open war against Kurdistan. It would also lose because it has 15 million Kurds who might change their mind and support their brethren. Kurdistan also has some cards to play.
You have called Kirkuk the Jerusalem of the Kurds. Can you explain what you mean?
Jalal Talibani said it and I quoted him! I think he wanted to show how important Kirkuk is for Kurds. It’s like a religious place, even though there are no religious relics there. It is also part of the area of influence for the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talibani’s party] and for them it is very important to have it included in the referendum. As you know, Iraqi Kurdistan has been divided for some time into areas of influence for the KDP and PUK [after a civil war in the mid-1990s].
You mentioned the PUK. Hasn’t the party had close ties to Iran, and can’t Iran use it to stop the referendum?
From 1964, when they [the party] fled to Iran, Iran was supporting them. But Barzani also flirted with Iran. It changes all the time. In the last few years, Talabani has been in the Iranian camp. Iran has tried very hard to use the PUK against the referendum but hasn’t succeeded. The PUK is currently divided between two or three factions. Cohesion inside it was never very strong from the beginning. It was built on three forces and it doesn’t manage to unify them. Goran split a few years ago. Barham Saleh has declared recently on the establishment of a party of his own. Hence I don’t think Tehran would manage to stop the referendum via the PUK, which is now backing the referendum. They tried to do it to through Goran, which is opposing the referendum but are also failing. They might use the physical power of al-Hashed al-Shaabi to do the job.
Do you think Iran will actually use military force to stop an independent Kurdistan?
Iran itself will not go to war. It’s not in a habit of launching wars by itself, but it has enough proxies in Baghdad and it can use them as it has done in the past. Some claim it has sometimes used ISIS but I don’t know to what extent you can verify that.
When they sent their own forces to Syria, it boomeranged and they were forced to bring them back. But the Peshmerga have prepared themselves and dug ditches for over 1,000 kilometers. They don’t have tanks or airplanes but they are good fighters on the ground and can stop Hashd Shabi. They are preparing for such an eventuality.
Israel speaks of supporting the Kurds but what can it actually do for them?
Israel cannot send direct support because there are no common borders between it and the KRG. Israel can’t send heavy weapons…through which country? In the 1960s and early 1970s, it could do it through Iran, but it has lost that access since 1975. Israel can lobby and try to convince Washington and other countries to support Kurdish independence. Moral support is very important as well. To know that there is one country that supports Kurdish independence might help others to follow suit. Israel can also help by buying oil and all kinds of other indirect ways.
What explains the strong Israeli support for the Iraqi Kurds?
It is spontaneous, by the people. Because Israeli people appreciate the fact that Jewish Kurds were living quite peacefully when they were in Kurdistan. In the 1970s, Kurds helped 1,000 Iraqi Jews who were trapped in Iraq to leave the country. Another important point is that the Kurds do not join the choir calling for the elimination of Israel. All this strengthens people-to-people relations between Kurds and Jews, and of course between Kurds and Israelis.
There should not be a double standard. Why should Palestinians have their state but Kurdistan not? Why South Sudan and not the Kurds? There is more than 30 million of them, why can’t they have a state of their own? It’s something of a moral issue for many Israelis.
Wouldn’t supporting an independent Kurdistan seriously hurt Israeli relations with the Arab world?
There are a lot of Arab states who support it behind the scene. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States see it as a buffer adjacent to Iran. Israel won’t remain the only country to recognize Kurdistan. There is a lot of support and sympathy for it among the Gulf countries and also Jordan. They don’t mind a Kurdish state but right now they need to play the game of Arab solidarity and pretend they are against it.