Unlike the warm, if not ambiguous and (mostly) indirect relationship between Israel and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, relations between Israeli and Kurdish actors in Turkey have been considerably more fraught. For Turkey’s Kurds, pro-Israel sentiment is much less forthcoming and enthusiastic — Israel’s participation in regional realpolitik with NATO-member Turkey is often at the expense of Kurds.
A primary cause for the current strained Turkish-Kurdish relations vis-a-vis Israel may be traced to alleged Israeli Mossad assistance in capturing Turkey’s public enemy number one, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, at a time when Israel-Turkey relations were comprehensive and robust. Israel’s often rocky relations with Turkey’s Kurds additionally stems from the fact that Israel provides arms and military intelligence to Ankara, which is in turn used against its large Kurdish population and militant groups, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Intriguing, PKK played a small yet symbolic role fighting alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, which adds to Israeli uncertainty. Having trained in the Beqaa Valley, PKK took part in in several battles against Israel, losing a handful of fighters in the process. At the time, the group was training for its armed resistance against Turkey which has played itself out in a protracted war that has left over 45,000 dead and several million displaced—including a smattering in Israel.
There are two main rival ideological camps within the PKK regarding Israel. The less-accommodating camp, led by one of the five founding PKK members, Cemil Bayık, is more hesitant to embrace Israel and is often perceived as being close to Iran and the Syrian regime. The more accommodating camp is headed by Murat Karayılan, also a veteran leader. In 2010, Israeli journalist Itai Anghel interviewed Karayılan, who conceded the necessity for Turkish-Israeli relations, but in an uncharacteristically emotional manner offered the following statement,
“Once we were friends…[and] Israel went out of its way to assist the Kurds. But since the 1980s…you tightened your relationship, and your military cooperation, with Turkey, you have been…among those who systematically assist in our oppression and eradication….is business everything? Everything?…More than any other people…I would have expected Israel to understand and identify with us. After all, you, who have experienced the Holocaust, massacres, expulsions and persecution, now see our people…experiencing that same fate…Syrians, Turks and Iranians — wants and is trying to destroy us…[you] are the ones providing [Turkey] with the weapons to destroy us….. Erdogan, [is]… tightening relations with Hezbollah and Syria….He hugs Ahmadinejad and praises Hamas. Are you sure this is your friend?”
Abdullah Öcalan and Israel
Perhaps the most significant event concerning Israel-Turkish-Kurdish relations occurred in 1999 when the Mossad became implicated in helping Turkey capture Öcalan. Several months before his ultimate demise in Nairobi, “Apo” was interviewed by the staunchly pro-Israel Middle East Quarterly. When asked about close Israel-Turkey relations, he pointedly stated, “The Turks made an agreement with Israel to kill Kurds…earlier [this came] from the United States.”
Disregarding that several other intelligence agencies allegedly took part in helping Turkey capture Öcalan, Kurds took particular umbrage at Israel’s alleged involvement. Hundreds marched on the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, and three protestors were killed by security forces after storming the building and briefly taking a female staffer hostage. Athough no further escalation occurred, PKK singled-out Israel and demanded an apology for its role in helping capture Öcalan. Five years later, ten Israeli Heron drones were sold to Ankara for the ostensible purpose of spying against the PKK.
Given PKK’s engagement in Lebanon and finding safe harbor in Syria before Öcalan’s capture, it is reasonable to assert there is no love lost regarding Israel-PKK relations. Additionally unsettling to Israel and Jewish allies are several statements allegedly made by Öcalan that seemingly blur the lines of ant-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. Via his attorneys, he claimed in 2005, “I am for the Jews to take part democratically in the Middle East. [However] Zionism is a different mentality.”
Perhaps the most bizarre statement associated with Öcalan is the supposed linkage between ISIS and Israel. According to pro-PKK media and via his attorney, Mazlum Dinç, Öcalan claimed Israel intentionally brought about ISIS in Turkish-Kurdistan, “The intention is to create an Israel in that territory [Turkish Kurdistan]. There has always been a wish to [establish] an Israel here…ISIS is an Israeli project.”
Öcalan did not provide any concrete details about such alleged linkages, and it seems to have not been a major issue of discussion among his supporters. Though Öcalan has written fairly extensively on the Jewish historical presence in the Middle East as well as the enormous repercussions of the Holocaust, his criticisms against Israel may be viewed through the context of his anti-capitalist/imperialist worldview and the need to delicately balance Kurds’ precarious regional situation in an ever-changing region.
Arguably one of the most progressive political parties in the Middle East, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has become well-known in promoting gender equality, religious freedom, human rights, and even LGBTIQ rights. Their primary platform includes promoting “radical democracy,” which seeks a weaker president and central government with empowered local administrations and decentralization which would ostensibly benefit Kurdish-majority regions and provide for more political as well as economic and cultural autonomy.
Reflective of their constituencies, HDP has been wary of Israeli policies, particularly regarding its treatment of Palestinians. During the 2014 Israel-Gaza War, the currently imprisoned and former presidential candidate and party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş publicly condemned Israel of collective punishment against the beleaguered and occupied coastal trip, and took a bold stance against the Israeli occupation in toto, “We condemn killing civilians, bombing houses…and ask the world community to break its silence towards the crimes. We state our support to oppressed people in Palestine and ask the Israeli people not to stay silent…” Demirtaş later compared Israeli actions against to the brutality of the Syrian regime, amidst accusations the Israel Defense Force (IDF) illegally used white phosphorous against civilians in Gaza in 2014.
However, it is additionally important to highlight Demirtaş’ public stance against anti-Semitism—an increasing problem in Turkey. Despite regional tensions with Israel at the time he berated Prime Minister Erdoğan’ and his increasingly anti-Israeli hostility that has too often conflated with anti-Jewish bigotry, cautioning his supporters against anti-Semitism,
“… Erdoğan keeps using [Israel]…to increase votes. Instead of…screaming and shouting [and] making statements…leading people to discrimination, to be enemies of Jews may bring you votes but you lose human values and it hurts them…Israel and Turkey should be friends. Animosity between states and people are not forever. Israeli and Palestinian states and their people should learn to live as free states.”
For both HDP and PKK there are much more pressing issues they must engage with such as defending their populations from regressive policies and continuing purges in response to the coup. In this sense, Israel is quite a peripheral concern.
Moreover, despite the fact that HDP has all been but sidelined thanks to Erdoğan’s descent into authoritarianism, US and EU-member states must still work with Turkey. A silver-lining is that both HDP and PKK are becoming invaluable actors outside of Turkey and increasingly, more analysts and policymakers in Europe and the United States support normalizing relations with PKK and its sister party in Syria (PYD), which have both been receiving deserved support in fighting ISIS, thus rejecting the Turkish claim that PKK and ISIS are ‘equally’ terrorist groups. Indeed, Turkey’s military policy overwhelmingly targets PYD locations rather than ISIS in Syria.
How and where Israel responds depends largely on the ebb and flow of Israel-Turkey relations as well as consideration for Washington’s policies, which have become much warmer due to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s close relations with US President Donald Trump. As Trump and Turkey’s leader recently spoke on how to combat terrorism, hopes for increased support vis-a-vis Kurds in Turkey are not looking terribly bright.