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Caspian Comrades

Viewpoints, January 2017
Samuel Ramani

ramani1

In mid-December, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first incumbent Israeli Prime Minister to visit Baku and Astana, the capitals of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, respectively. Netanyahu’s trip laid the groundwork for an expansion of Israel’s geopolitical links to the Caspian Sea region and demonstrated to Arab/Muslim countries that Israel is capable of forming durable partnerships with Muslim-majority states.

Israel’s decision to strengthen its links with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan is motivated by a wide range of economic and geopolitical interests. Israel imports 40 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and 25 percent from Kazakhstan. Israeli business leaders have invested extensively in the development of both countries’ energy sectors and have sought to turn Israel into a bridge between the Caspian Sea and Asian export markets.

Israel’s successful energy cooperation with Baku and Astana has been used as a benchmark for expanded linkages in other economic spheres. Since the early 1990s, Israeli companies have rewarded Azerbaijan’s economic deregulation efforts with expanded economic investment. Israel’s economic diversification efforts have focused on strengthening Azerbaijan’s IT sector.

Bezeq, the Israeli telecommunication company has been heavily involved in upgrading the Azeri telephone system. A cell phone company, Bakcell, was started as a joint venture between the Azeri Ministry of Communication and GTIB (Israel) and has become the second largest local service provider. Israel’s successful collaboration with Azerbaijan at the 2015 BakuTel forum convinced Jerusalem to share Iron Dome cyber-security technology with Azerbaijan, further strengthening the alliance between the two countries.

Israel’s efforts to diversify Kazakhstan’s economy have been similarly successful. Bilateral agriculture projects have been the signature achievement of Jerusalem’s economic outreach to Kazakhstan. Israel has provided vital technological assistance to Kazakh attempts to develop a joint irrigation system in the Almaty region.

Forging an alliance: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Kazakh Prime Minister Sergei Tereschenko review an honor guard in Jerusalem in 1992; Credit: Yaakov Saar / National Photo Collection.

Forging an alliance: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Kazakh Prime Minister Sergei Tereschenko review an honor guard in Jerusalem in 1992; Credit: Yaakov Saar / National Photo Collection.

As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and numerous Israeli business leaders have praised Kazakhstan’s economic growth potential, Israel strengthened its trade links with Astana by entering into a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in November 2015.

The security dimension of Israel’s alliances with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan has also strengthened considerably in recent years. During Netanyahu’s visit to Baku, Israel agreed to sell Azerbaijan $5 billion worth of arms and missile defense technology. As the United States and the European Union have placed arms embargoes on Azerbaijan since 1992, Israel’s provision of military technology to Baku have played a critical role in increasing Azerbaijan’s military capabilities relative to Armenia.

“Israel is able to forge durable, multi-dimensional partnerships with Muslim countries”

Israel’s military partnership with Azerbaijan has given it an ally on Iran’s borders and strengthened Jerusalem’s ability to resist Iranian belligerence. In 2012, Azerbaijan gave Israel access to its air bases, as Baku shares Israel’s view that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is a threat to regional security. Azerbaijan has also reportedly agreed to provide military assistance to Israel, if Netanyahu decided to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Even though Kazakhstan has maintained a deep security partnership with Iran, Israel has also been able to find common ground with Astana on security issues. After 9/11, the Kazakh government expanded its cooperation with Israel on counter-terrorism. Astana policymakers believe that Israel’s experience combatting Palestinian terrorism will provide valuable insights for their efforts to combat extremist Islamist movements.

Israel’s counter-terrorism cooperation with Kazakhstan and exports of sophisticated stealth weaponry to Astana have entrenched a military alliance between the two countries. As Kazakhstan is a non-permanent UN Security Council member, Netanyahu hopes that a stronger Israeli-Kazakh military partnership will cause President Nursultan Nazarbayev to endorse Israel’s bid for a Security Council seat.

The cordial rhetoric that accompanied Netanyahu’s recent visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan is a compelling illustration of Israel’s ability to forge durable, multi-dimensional partnerships with Muslim countries.

As Israel is poised to increase its trade links with the EEU in 2017, and expand its anti-ISIS cooperation with other countries in the region, Jerusalem’s alliances with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are likely to continue to strengthen in the years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.