Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off Tuesday morning for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, pointing to his trip to the two Muslim countries as an indication that rather than being politically isolated, Israel is courted by countries around the world.
During his two-day visit, aimed at fostering security, economic, and diplomatic ties, Netanyahu will become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit the region in almost 25 years of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Visits by Israeli leaders to non-Arab Muslim-majority countries are rare.
Speaking to reporters at the airport, the prime minister said the trip was a further indication of Israeli success in developing relationships with Muslim counties.
“These are two large and significant countries in the Muslim world, and our goal is to strengthen diplomatic, security, and economic ties with them,” Netanyahu said. “In complete contrast to what you have heard now and then, not only does Israel not suffer from political isolation, Israel is a courted country.”
Both countries are important allies. Azerbaijan, which has an extended border with Iran, is a secular state that has long had warm relations with Israel. Nearly 98 percent of its 10 million citizens are Muslim, the vast majority of them Shiites. Baku is one of Israel’s main trading partners, buying weapons systems and providing the Jewish state with the lion’s share of its oil. Israeli trade with Azerbaijan is said to be significantly higher than with France, for example.
“These countries very much want to strengthen ties to Israel, and following the strengthening of our ties with Asian powers, African countries, and Latin American countries, now is the time for relations with important countries in the Muslim world. This is part of a clear policy of reaching out. Israel’s relations are flourishing in an unprecedented manner.”
Netanyahu, who is accompanied by his wife Sara, said that his visit to Kazakhstan, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister, has “historic dimensions.” He briefly visited Azerbaijan in 1997, during his first term as prime minister, becoming the first Israeli leader to visit the country.
Kazakhstan, where Netanyahu and his delegation will spend two nights, is interested in Israeli counterterrorism know-how and in doing business with Israel’s high-tech sector, a means of diversifying its economy, which is currently dominated by exports of hydrocarbons.
Azerbaijan is reportedly interested in acquiring Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, a deal that is likely to be discussed during this week’s visit.
Some 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s 18 million residents are Muslim. Starting January 1, Kazakhstan — the ninth-largest country in the world — will assume a two-year position as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It traditionally follows the lead of its top ally, Russia, in supporting pro-Palestinian resolutions, something Netanyahu is expected to try to revert.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu will meet with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev at Baku’s Zagulba Palace, where officials from both countries will sign bilateral agreements and make statements. After lunch with Aliyev, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at Şəhidlər Xiyabanı, or Martyrs Lane, a memorial dedicated to Azeris killed by the Soviets during the 1990 January Massacre and the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994.
Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia have warred for years over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but ruled by Armenian separatists. Fighting between the two sides flared up earlier this year. Armenian forces claimed Baku deployed Israeli-made kamikaze drones in a battle against Armenian “volunteers.”
After his visit at Martyrs Lane, the prime minister will visit the Ohr Avner Jewish educational complex, operated by the Chabad movement, where he is scheduled to meet with representatives of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan. Most of them reside in the capital, while smaller communities exist in the Guba region and elsewhere. Most famous among these is Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town), which used to be thought of as the largest Jewish locality outside Israel with 18,000 residents, but currently only about 1,000 Jews live there.
On Tuesday evening, Netanyahu will leave Azerbaijan and head to Astana, where on Wednesday morning he is set to meet with Kazakhstan’s longtime leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the iconic Akorda presidential palace. The two leaders will hold a working meeting and then attend a bilateral business forum.
Netanyahu will then meet the chairman of Kazakhstan’s Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, before heading to the Astana’s new Great Synagogue for a meeting with the local Jewish community.
It is estimated that between 12,000 and 30,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan, most of them in the country’s former capital, Almaty.
Netanyahu, who is also accompanied by Russian-speaking Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, will conclude his visit Wednesday with a business forum in Astana before heading home Thursday morning.