COPENHAGEN, Denmark – With Iraq spinning out of control under a jihadi-led Sunni rebellion and the autonomous Iraqi Kurds expanding territorial control and moving closer to independence, Erbil is attracting support from a discrete friend: Israel.
"We should... support the Kurdish aspiration for independence," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a think tank in Tel Aviv on Sunday. He called the Kurds "a nation of fighters (who) have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence.”
The support for independence – a perennial aspiration of Iraq’s estimated five million Kurds – clashes with US policy in Iraq, which has opposed any expansion of Kurdish autonomy out of fear that would mean a step toward independence.
Kurdistan and Israel have maintained quiet business, intelligence and military ties, with Israeli leaders often praising the Kurds, many of whom see the Jewish state as a model for their own future homeland.
Netanyahu made the call for Kurdish independence as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region.
In a meeting last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann called Kurdish independence as “a foregone conclusion.”
"Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion," Lieberman's spokesman quoted him as telling Kerry at a meeting in Paris last Thursday.
A day earlier, praise also came from Israeli President Shimon Peres, when he visited the White House.
"The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women," Peres said.
Sardar Sharif, a doctoral researcher in international relations at the University of Dohuk who has studied the Kurdish-Israeli ties, explained that Israel has maintained discrete military and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, and that former Iraqi-Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani had helped Jews leave Israel for Israel.
"The Israelis and the Kurds had a common enemy, namely the Arab states that were hostile to them," said Sharif.
The Israeli-Kurdish relation has been secret until now because the Kurds have wanted it, “because Israel is not popular in the Middle East,” Sharif said.
”Our silence - in public, at least – is best. Any unnecessary utterance on our part can only harm them (Kurds),” senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad station chief in Kurdish region in the 1960s, said secrecy regarding the nature of ties had been a Kurdish request.
"We'd love it to be out in the open, to have an embassy there, to have normal relations. But we keep it clandestine because that’s what they (the Kurds) want,” he told Reuters.
According to Sharif, the Israelis have an interest in getting a new and powerful ally in the Middle East, where they feel alone against the Arabs – as do the Kurds.
"Israel was hoping to get a moderate, secular Muslim ally in Turkey, but the relationship was strained after 2010. Now, they aim at the KRG," said Sharif, referring to an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists in May 2010.
In addition, the Israelis are concerned about Iran's growing influence in the “Shiite crescent” -- Iraq, Syria and with the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"The Israelis are hoping for a new ally in the Middle East that could mitigate Iranian influence in the region,” Sharif told Rudaw.
Tobias Havmand, an international journalist who has reported from around the Middle East, believes that a new alliance picture is emerging in the Middle East and Israel is trying to navigate, so that they can overcome their isolation and win new partners.
"An independent Kurdistan would be a thorn in the side primarily Iran, Israeli's arch-enemy, and Israel needs regional allies. It's easier to make a strategic alliance with the secular Kurds than with Arabs and Persians," he said.
But it is still quite risky to ally with the Israelis, because it can give a little backfire, experts warn.
"Israel is still the object of hate number one in the region, and being too closely associated with them opens a popular popular flank of isolation and hostile demonstrations of nations and people who already have problems with Kurdish independence," said Havmand.
Sharif agreed and believed the Muslim and Arab world will perceive the Kurds relationship with the Israelis as treason.
“But the Kurds will perceive this view as hypocrisy, as the Muslim-Arab countries in secret also trade with Israel.
“Why is it halal (permitted) for them, but haram (forbidden) for us, the Kurds will ask?” he said.