Israel supports the establishment of a Kurdish state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, as Kurds in Iraq gear up for a referendum on independence that lawmakers in Baghdad oppose.
Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.
On Tuesday, Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said he would press ahead with the Sept. 25 referendum despite a vote by Iraq’s parliament rejecting it.
“(Israel) supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Netanyahu said, in remarks sent to foreign correspondents by his office.
Western powers are concerned a plebiscite in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region – including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – could divert attention from the war against Islamic State militants.
Netanyahu said Israel does however consider the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group, taking the same position as Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
An Israeli general told a conference in Washington last week that he personally did not regard the PKK, whose militants have been fighting Turkey for more than three decades, as a terrorist group.
Netanyahu, who is due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, voiced support for “the Kurds’ aspirations for independence” in a speech in 2014, saying they deserve “political independence”.
His latest remarks appeared to be a more direct endorsement of the creation of a Kurdish state.
But they will cut little ice in Baghdad, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and has strong ties with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.
Iraq’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran and Syria — oppose the referendum, fearing it could fan separatism among their own ethnic Kurdish populations.
Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East after the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.