TEL, AVIV – Seizing on the mayhem in Iraq, Israel’s prime minister on Sunday called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region.
He also said Israel would have to maintain a long-term military presence in the West Bank to keep a jihadi juggernaut from powering its way to the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
In a policy speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out one of the most detailed responses yet by a world leader to the territorial gains made in recent weeks by Sunni extremists fighting in Iraq. It underscored how profoundly events can ripple across an increasingly interlocked Middle East.
Netanyahu suggested that the territorial gains made this month by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State — formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — could endanger neighboring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace agreement it considers vital to its security.
The group has recently captured wide swaths of Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, as well as several border crossings with Syria. On Sunday it declared a caliphate, or a state governed along Islamist principles, on territory it controls in both countries.
The offensive by the Islamic State’s militants “can be aimed toward Jordan in the shortest time,” Netanyahu warned. Without stating outright that the Western-leaning Jordanian monarchy could fall, Netanyahu suggested as much by saying that the new developments meant a need for Israel to hold on to the West Bank border with the Hashemite kingdom, along the Jordan River.
“We must be able to stop the terrorism and fundamentalism that can reach us from the east at the Jordan line, and not in the suburbs of Tel Aviv,” he said, implying that from Jordan radicals could sweep through the West Bank, whose borders reach within 30 km of Tel Aviv. The metropolis of 2 million is the business and cultural center of the Jewish state, and the engine of its increasing prosperity.
Netanyahu’s endorsement of Kurdish independence, as well as his tough position on the West Bank, put him at odds with prevailing international opinion. And critics swiftly saw cynical exploitation of violent events elsewhere to further Israeli territorial ambitions.
“Netanyahu is finding any pretext, any excuse, to justify his ideological policy of annexing the West Bank or maintaining the Israeli military control of all of Palestine including West Bank, and any development in the region or in Palestine is exploited to justify that,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior figure in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In Jordan itself, alongside concerns about the Islamic State, there has been some talk suggesting that the threat was blown out of proportion by Israel for its own purposes in recent days.
“I don’t think (Islamic State) militants will invade Jordan,” said Jordanian military expert Mamoun Abo Nowar, a retired air force general. “Israel is taking advantage of the (Islamic State) threats . . . playing this game to negatively affect the Palestinian cause and deprive the Palestinians of an independent state.”
Netanyahu said the rise of both al-Qaida-inspired Sunni extremists, as well as Iranian-backed Shiite forces, had created the opportunity for “enhanced regional cooperation.” He said Jordan as well as the Kurds, who control an oil-rich autonomous region of northern Iraq, should be bolstered, calling the Kurds “a nation of fighters (who) have proved political commitment, political moderation, and are worthy of independence.”