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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Kurdish Presidential Candidate’s “Jewish Wife”

Filed under: Iraq, The Middle East

The Kurdish Presidential Candidate’s “Jewish Wife”
Kurdish-inhabited areas (CIA)

The 35 million Kurds live a tragedy: they are dispersed throughout Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, unable to secure their right of self-determination. Because of their geographical dissemination, the Kurds have been unable to unite. On the contrary, in every swath of land with Kurdish communities, dissent and internal strife characterize their body politic to such an extent that sometimes rival factions would prefer to cooperate with the local power rather than accepting a compromise with the other Kurdish faction. Their inability to unite has been the cause of their political weakness.

Kurdish-inhabited areas
Kurdish-inhabited areas (CIA)

Since 1978, Kurds have been fighting for independence in Turkey, where they represent around 15 percent of the population. They are struggling to establish an autonomous self-governing region in northeast Syria with the protection of the United States against mighty enemies: Russia, Syria, and Turkey. In Iraq, Kurds were persecuted and savagely attacked by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and only after the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 did the Kurds enjoy an autonomy (the first of its kind) which almost developed into an independent state because of the weakness of the Iraqi regime engaged in a life-and-death fight with ISIS in 2013.

However, as in other places, the Kurds in Iraq suffered from a chronic struggle between the two main tribes that represent the backbone of the Kurdish community – the Barzanis and the Talabani. It would not be an overstatement to say that this struggle has incapacitated the Kurdish people from achieving independence. The Barzanis were disposed toward Turkey, while the Talabanis favored Iran and Syria. Mullah Mustafa Barzani founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946 and ruled the Kurdistan region for almost three decades until the Talabanis challenged his authority by establishing the Marxist-oriented Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The challenge reached a peak between 1994-1998, when the two parties fought a bloody civil war. Calm was restored briefly with the second U.S. invasion of Iraq and the establishment of the Autonomous Government.

Indeed, while the Barzanis favored independence, the Talabanis were more inclined toward a united Iraq, especially since the Iraqi president was one of their own, Jalal Talabani, nicknamed Mam Jalal [Uncle Jalal].  According to the Iraqi Constitution, the president of Iraq must be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite, and the speaker of the parliament a Sunni. Jalal

Talabani was elected president of the new Iraqi republic in 2005 and remained in office for eight years. He died on October 3, 2017, just days after an unproductive Kurdish independence referendum was held. While a vast majority of Kurds supported secession, the referendum won little international support and resulted in a crack-down by the Baghdad government.

In fact, twice in their modern history, the Iraqi Kurds tried to establish an independent homeland, and twice they were crushed by domestic and foreign powers. In 1991, after the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), the Kurds tried to establish an independent geographical entity that was crushed militarily by Saddam Hussein and again in September 2017 when President Massoud Barzani initiated a referendum for independence. The latest move was met by Iraqi troops rolling into Kurdish territory with the active assistance of the Talabanis, who refused to confront the Iraqi incursion that began in “their” territory – the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, thus allowing Baghdad to crush the Kurdish autonomy. The Iraqi government banned international flights into and out of Kurdistan and took control of the borders, a privilege the Kurds had since 2003. The Baghdad-based government also retook possession of the Kurdish area’s most precious asset, the oil fields that gave the Kurdish autonomy an almost self-sufficiency in financial affairs.

The May 2018 legislative elections in Iraq became the next arena where the two Kurdish parties collided. The two Kurdish parties secured 41 seats out of 329,  and thought, justly, that they could tip the balance by joining one of the two main winners of the elections – the Iraqi-centered “Sairoun,” led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the opposing El-Fath group led by the pro-Iranian Hadi al Amiri, the head of the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units ). Both lists needed the Kurdish contribution to secure the majority in parliament, thus allowing them to nominate the prime minister and other key posts in the administration. Each of the two parties tried to bargain with the two Kurdish lists for a series of concessions to the Kurdish region believing that their leverage would lead the competing national lists to acknowledge Kurdish demands and agree at least to part of them (recovery of the control of the borders, restoring international flights, and a fair repartition of the oil revenues, with Baghdad agreeing to fully finance the Kurdistan regional government budget, including the payment of salaries of all officials).

Following the elections, the parties finally decided to nominate the former governor of Al-Anbar province, the Sunni Mohamed al-Halbousi (aged 37), as speaker of the parliament, as stipulated in the Iraqi constitution. Following that nomination, the next two steps were to elect the next Iraqi president (a Kurd) and the Sunni prime minister (nominated by the list that has the majority in parliament).

Enter the “Jewish Wife”

The KDP announced that their candidate for the prestigious job of president of Iraq would be Fouad Hussein. The PUK was taken by surprise. The KDP move was interpreted as a provocation since the two previous presidents were nominees of the PUK, and their candidate Barham Saleh, himself one of the founders of the PUK, seemed to have a lesser chance to be elected than Fouad Hussein. As a result, a war of words between the two parties culminated in a Tweet by Jalal Talabani’s nephew, Hiwa Talabani, which claimed that the KDP candidate Fouad Hussein was married to a Jewish woman. If he were to be elected as president, Talabani warned, a Jewish woman would for the first time in Iraqi history the “First Lady” of Iraq. He added, “Are the Iraqis ready for this?”

The Tweet was considered as crossing a moral line never approached before between the two Kurdish parties. Fouad Hussein answered by declaring he had no intention to enter into the war of words with the Talabanis and preferred to state that his wife was of Dutch origin, a Protestant and not a Jew, member of the prestigious Montessori family.

Sample Responses

No doubt that Hussein’s explanations are supposed to calm the Iraqi members of parliament who are to vote for his nominations. But as it happens in the Arab world, a myth has already been created, and the issue of the Jewish woman will remain in the back of the minds of Iraqis and others in the Arab and Muslim world.

The issue of Jews has always fascinated the Arab imagination. Jewish wives/mothers have always been a source of defamation: Khaddafi’s critics claimed that his mother was Jewish. Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy theorists accused Egypt’s Abd el-Fattah el Sisi during the first presidential campaign of having a Jewish mother whose brother was a member of the “Haganah.” Exactly as in Kurdish Fouad Hussein’s case, the critics declared that with such an origin, there could be neither love nor loyalty to the state since these would be turned toward Israel! Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika was accused of having a Jewish Mr. Levy as his father, while his opponent in the next round of the presidential election, Ali Benflis, has also been accused of being married to a Jewess! There is no doubt that Hiwa Talabani is part and parcel of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism, and resorting to the argument of Jewish origin only depicts the deep pathology of hate and paranoia expressed against opponents.

However, in the Kurdish case, this is indeed a very unpleasant novelty. Jews and Israel have always been looked at with sympathy by the Kurds, who lamented the exodus of Jews from Kurdistan in the aftermath of the establishment of the State of Israel and who appreciated Israel’s military, humanitarian, and financial support throughout the years. Israel was the only nation to openly declare that it was fully supportive of the 2017 referendum since it believed that the Kurds had the right to have their independent state.

The inability of Israel to prevent the defeat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) following the referendum was the reason for some Kurds expressing a deep disappointment toward the Jewish State.

It seems as if Hiwa Talabani was trying to play on this mishap while reviving old specters of anti-Semitic arguments in the hope that they would deter the Iraqi parliament members from voting for Fouad Hussein for the presidency of Iraq.

From the Kurdish point of view, it is obvious that the rift between the two Kurdish parties is as wide as ever, and the road to reconciliation between the two is far from reachable in the near future.