Turkey Tries To Scare Voters With Warning About Jews Ahead of Kurdish Referendum

A number of Turkish media outlets supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have begun proliferating apparently false news reports claiming rival Kurdish groups entered into a secret deal with Israel to gain their independence by resettling Jews to the region.

Stories appearing Wednesday in Turkish newspapers, such as Yenia Akit and Aksam, that back Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party alleged that Mahmoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, agreed to welcome some 200,000 Israeli Jews of Kurdish origin, Al-Monitor reported. In exchange, Israel would reportedly back Barzani's bid for Kurdish statehood in an upcoming referendum, that's been met with opposition by nearly every regional actor, including Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

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Turkey has been especially opposed to an independent Kurdistan as it deals with a decades-long insurgency at home by the nationalist militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey has suspected other U.S.-backed Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria of bearing links to the PKK and has attempted to pressure fellow NATO member U.S. into diminishing support for Kurds, which have proved an effective ally against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

The U.S., along with a number of European countries involved in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but considers other Kurdish militias, such as the Syrian People's Protection Units (YPG) and Iraqi peshmerga units, separate entities.

RTR26SCA A man reads a copy of the magazine "Israel-Kurd" at a street in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, August 16, 2009. Turkey attributed to the magazine an apparently false report suggesting Israel was backing a Kurdish bid for independence, which is already unpopular in the region. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

In its quest to curb international support for Kurds, Turkey has recently focused its attention toward another major U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel. Along with most majority-Muslim nations in the region, Turkey has been deeply critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, but does maintain ties with the majority-Jewish state, unlike most Arab nations.

When former Israeli military deputy chief Major General Yair Golan said Sunday he personally did not consider the PKK a terrorist organization, as reported by Israeli daily Haaretz, pro-government outlets in Turkey blasted what they considered direct "Zionist" support for the PKK. Israel has not officially labeled the PKK a terrorist group, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later dismissed Golan's view Wednesday, saying Israel both backed Kurdish statehood and considered the PKK to be a terrorist organization, according to The Times of Israel.

The latest Turkish reports of Barzani and Israel's alleged deal, described by one as the "insidious Kurdistan plan," all cite a magazine called "Israeli-Kurd" published in majority-Kurdish northern Iraq. The magazine first appeared in 2009 and was lauded by local journalists as a victory for press freedom, according to Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Suspicion as to the publication's intention was quickly raised in the Arab world, where deep mistrust for Israel has resonated since the country's founding in 1948, a year that saw a major war between the new state and its Arab neighbors as well as the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Diliman Abdulkader, a Kurdish scholar and analyst of Middle East affairs, suspected these reports were designed to destroy Kurdish credibility in the region by associating them with Israel and playing on local prejudices against people of Jewish faith.

"The stories published by Erdogan's pro-government media are baseless, the attempt to link the Kurdish referendum with Jews or Israel is common not only in Turkey but among Muslims in the Middle East. True there are over 150,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, but this has no links with the push for self-determination," Diliman Abdulkader told Newsweek.

RTX3G91R People celebrate to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Zakho, Iraq, September 14, 2017. The vote has been met with opposition from Iran, Iraq and Turkey, as well as deep concern by the U.S. and other Western countries. Ari Jalal/Reuters

Abdulkader said it was "not in Turkey's interest to beat the war drum" with Kurds, citing Ankara's own internal security issues facing nationalist Kurdish insurgents and its attempt to maintain a foothold in northern Syria, where its presence is opposed by U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG groups, the Russia-backed Syrian military and ISIS. He also identified Iran, which controls powerful majority-Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, as perhaps an even greater threat to Kurdish statehood than Turkey as Tehran advances its own interests in the war-torn country.

The Kurdish Regional Government is set to hold its referendum on independence on September 25, despite opposition from Iran, Iraq and Turkey, as well as serious concerns expressed by the U.S. and other Western countries supportive of the Kurdish community, Reuters reported Friday.