“Israelis & Kurds Love Each Other” / By Azadeh Moaveni – WATCH HISTORICAL PICTURES

Iranwire – 4-7-2014 – Amidst the turmoil unleashed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ploughing its way into Iraq and declaring an Islamic caliphate, there is the prospect of a truly new and viable state emerging from the chaos: an independent Kurdistan borne of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north, and including the contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, wrested by peshmergas in the early days of the jihadi sweep. The long deferred dream of independence has today come to seem an almost administrative necessity, and the moment a historic one, in which the Kurds can potentially secede without being blamed for the destruction of modern Iraq.

Few in the Middle East are better acquainted with the national aspirations of Iraq’s Kurds than Elizeir Geizi Tsafrir, a former senior Mossad official who in the course of his long career served as station chief in Irbil, Beirut, and Tehran, observing the Kurds’ fraught relations with their neighbours from the vantage of both the Kurds themselves and their fickle neighbours. In 1975, after the Shah signed the Algiers accord with Saddam Hussein and withdrew Iranian support from Iraq’s Kurdish region, Tsafrir escaped in the night as Saddam’s forces launched an attack. As the Mossad’s Tehran station chief he organized the evacuation of 1500 Israelis as the Iranian revolution unfolded.

Working for the Mossad, Tsafrir was stationed in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Israel was helping the Kurds fight against the central government in Iraq. During that time he developed personal friendships with the Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani and his sons Idris and Masoud, the current leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.  Tsafrir’s photos of his days in Kurdistan, which he has allowed IranWire to use for the first time, illustrate a historic relationship between Israel and the Kurds. The photographs show how at home Kurdish leaders felt with Israeli politicians, military officials and intelligence leaders. Tsafrir believes the admiration is mutual. “There is love between the Israelis and the Kurds,” Tsafrir says. “The Kurds, for generations, have suffered such oppression in various places.” These sentiments were echoed by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a recent speech he said, “We should … support the Kurdish aspiration for independence, a nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence”.

IranWire talked to him about the path ahead for the Kurds and the challenges a nascent Kurdish state would face.


How does Israel view the prospect of an independent Kurdistan?

Surely the region will be more stable with a strong Kurdish state than with what’s going on lately with Syria and Iraq. It’s just chaos now. The Kurds, for generations, have suffered such oppression in various places, and in Iraq, they’ve endured all kinds of massacres and killings, from the chemical attack on Halabja to the Anfal campaign. For many years they have been a poor people leading a very difficult life, and over these years, we and they, Israelis and Kurds, have felt a sort of feeling of love between the two people. Most Israelis wish the best for the Kurds and believe that perhaps this unstable situation in the area, in Syria and Iraq, will finally bring up an independent Kurdish state.


How would Israel respond, were the Kurds to move ahead? And what about the disapproval of neighbours like Turkey?

If the Kurds find such an opportunity to declare a state, Israel will be one of the first to recognize, and if needed, give their support. It will surely be the same with Western states.

I would say it’s fortunate that Turkey is very much involved in the economy of KRG, to such an extent that the Turks and the Kurds in Iraq are coordinating the export of petrol through Turkey in spite of Baghdad, against the rules of Baghdad. These are really new times, and there is a kind of understanding between Kurds, Iraq and the Turkish government. Who could have thought of a tanker carrying Kurdish petrol could be arriving in Israel? 

The Turks may cooperate economically, but wouldn’t a Kurdish state complicate their ambitions in the region and also their own Kurdish problem?

With all due respect to Turkey, it is the belief and opinion of many Israelis that one day they will come back to us again, and learn that despite all their efforts to reach influence in the Arab and Islamic circles, the only stable pole in the region that they can count on is Israel. Even then, Turkey will still face a long-term problem with its Kurds. Nobody knows exactly how many, but perhaps there are as many as 40 million Kurds—many more than the Jews and Palestinians who make such noise in the world— and they still don’t have a national solution. 

How does Israel feel about the potential for changing boundaries in the region? Will redrawn lines benefit or undermine a potential Kurdistan?

What is clear is that Sykes Picot is falling apart. Recently I was at a lecture by the chief of staff of Israel and the first images in his presentation were the pictures of Sykes and Picot. He said, “look, my friend, change the photos to two jihadists, this is the situation now.’ The Kurdish peshmerga took the opportunity to control Kirkuk when ISIS pushed in and the Iraqi army ran off, and one has to say that Kirkuk is the line of dispute, because of the petrol. We have to remember that for many years Saddam tried to Arabize Kirkuk by exiling Kurdish families and bringing in Arabs. Since 2003 the KRG has been trying to bring those Kurdish families back. The majority today is Kurdish, the governor is a Kurd, and all of this will be positive in opening negotiations between the Kurds and Baghdad. 

This may seem like a momentous chance for the Kurds, but how golden is it really, with an ISIS caliphate as a neighbour and Syria raging in the background?

What is certain is not only have they developed the best part of Iraq—with order, stability, and democracy, and their strong army of peshmerga—but they will also be backed by America and the West. The Kurds are pro-Western, they have proved themselves to be so, and although they’re Sunnis they are not fanatics, they are “Muslim-light”, generally speaking. I think they have the capacity—I would compare them to the state of Israel—to organize themselves successfully.


Do you see Kurdish internal political rivalries as having matured enough not be an obstacle to governance? And how do you see the next generation, the sons of Barzani and Talabani? Do they have the political relationships and charisma to lead?

They have good coordination, it’s not 100 percent, but it’s good. In the last election the chief in Talabani’s party, Nawshirwan Mustafa, came out with new party and took more votes than Talabani in the election. The Kurds understand that a certain degree of coordination must continue for the sake of the people. Also Massoud Barzani himself is not old, he is young in terms of leaders. There is lots of opposition to the Kurdish government, both in Irbil and Suleimaniyah, over what people see as corruption. I think that Kurdish society is much more democratically developed to make leadership decisions for the future.


How good is Kurdish intelligence today? Does it operate with the sophistication and means of a national intelligence agency?

From what I remember from the time I was there, and what I have followed since through the media, they surely run a much better intelligence organization than some neighbouring countries, and are not less successful, certainly.


Your vantage point is unique. You have run Mossad stations in Beirut, Irbil, Tehran, among other places. Who do you see the Kurds closest to culturally?

There are equivalent proverbs in Persian and Kurdish that reflect the bad feelings both Persians and Kurds have historically had towards the Arabs. Also Turks and Iranians do not like each other and Kurds and Turks do not like each other. Children grow up sustaining such feelings but when they mature they have to think logically about what is best to do, and I’m sure the Kurds will do as much as possible to maintain good relations with their neighbours. They are not looking for wars or revenge.


After all that has happened, what is your estimation of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki?

As a citizen of the world, I was satisfied with what went on after the Gulf War and then 2003. History brought a sort of solution with compensation to the majority of people in Iraq, who are Shiites, a sort of a positive judgment of history after so many years. But unfortunately, with extremist Islamic Iran on one side, Maliki is trying to play a very difficult game, trying to balance some sort of coordination with America and Iran, the harbor of Shiism these days. And now we’re in the midst of a very tense historical conflict, between Sunni and Shia, with Iran trying to change the role of history, despite Shias only being a minority in the Islamic world. http://en.iranwire.com/features/5888/