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Israel's Backing of Iraqi Kurds' Independence Vote Strains Ankara Ties

FILE - A man walks past a campaign slogan printed on a Kurdish flag urging people to vote "yes" in the upcoming poll on independence from Iraq, in Irbil, Iraq, Aug. 24, 2017.

Israel’s support of next Monday’s independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds is threatening to strain recently restored diplomatic relations with Turkey. Ankara has been condemning the planned vote, warning of severe consequences for the region.

Israel has a long tradition of seeing the region’s Kurds as a buffer from both Arab and Iranian threats; but with Turkey having its own restive Kurdish minority, Israel’s support of the vote has drawn strong condemnation in Turkey.

Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served widely in the region, says the response by Ankara and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been restrained.

"In the government media, there are many articles saying, look, Israel is behind Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. But what has to be followed is the practical reaction from Ankara, not what the government media reports. I also did not see anything coming from Erdogan’s mouth putting Israel on the target for this issue," Selcen said.

Israel and Turkey only recently restored diplomatic ties after rapprochement efforts following the 2010 killing by Israeli commandos of 10 Turks trying to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. But Turkish suspicions over Israel’s relations with the region’s Kurds were further heightened this month when former senior Israeli general Yair Golan declared the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for decades, is not a terrorist organization. Washington and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

FILE - A salesman, talking to a customer, sells patriotic and pro-independence paraphanelia at a bazaar in Irbil, Iraq, Aug. 24, 2017.
FILE - A salesman, talking to a customer, sells patriotic and pro-independence paraphanelia at a bazaar in Irbil, Iraq, Aug. 24, 2017.

The comment triggered a strong reaction in Ankara; but former Turkish diplomat Selcen says a swift response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrates that both sides are committed to working together, despite differences.

"Mr. Netanyahu made a very attentive statement underlying for Israel the PKK is a terrorist organization, but an independent Kurdish state is in the interests of the region; Israel needs this alliance as Turkey needs it for different reasons, but they both need it. And that's how they managed to repair the relations. And with Israel there are some tensions, but the two sides manage to go on now with the newfound, let's say friendship and relations, they are not going to sever the diplomatic ties, like before over the issue of Kurdistan," Selcen said.

Analysts warn if Israel backs its support of the Kurds with action, it will likely further strain relations with Ankara, whatever their wider mutual interests.