Reaching out to Muslims, Netanyahu plans Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan trips
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Reaching out to Muslims, Netanyahu plans Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan trips

Prime minister looks to build new alliances to thwart Palestinian efforts to internationalize conflict

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu holds an Israeli flag after a joint press conference with Kenya's President on July 5, 2016 at the State House, in Nairobi. (AFP/SIMON MAINA)
Benjamin Netanyahu holds an Israeli flag after a joint press conference with Kenya's President on July 5, 2016 at the State House, in Nairobi. (AFP/SIMON MAINA)

NAIROBI, Kenya – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to visit Kazakhstan and possibly Azerbaijan this winter, he said Tuesday, as he looks to extend a series of overtures aimed at expanding Israel’s diplomatic reach.

Netanyahu announced his travel plans during a briefing with Israeli reporters accompanying him on his current four-country tour in eastern Africa.

During the briefing, he laid out his plan to create new alliances around the globe in a bid to strengthen Jerusalem’s position in the conflict with the Palestinians.

He said the trip would take place in the winter but did not give exact dates.

Azerbaijan, which has a long border with Iran, is a secular state that has long had warm relations with Israel. Nearly 98 percent of its 10 million inhabitants are Muslim, the vast majority of them Shiites.

Kazakhstan, which was recently elected to a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, is the world’s tenth largest country. Some 70 percent of its 18 million inhabitants are Muslim.

Visits by Israeli leaders to non-Arab Muslim-majority countries are rare.

In 2009, then-president Shimon Peres went to both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, becoming the first Israeli head of state to visit these countries since Jerusalem established diplomatic relations with them. In 1993, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

In April, the National Security Council’s counter-terrorism bureau issued a travel warning against Azerbaijan, saying there were “continuing potential threats” against Israelis travelers and recommending Israelis to avoid “non-essential visits” to the country.

Speaking to reporters in his Nairobi hotel, Netanyahu focused on his vision to improve ties with countries across the globe, including in Latin America and especially in Africa.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 5, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 5, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu is currently in the middle of a five-day swing through east Africa, with visits to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, the first visit by an Israeli head of state to sub-Saharan Africa in decades.

During his term Netanyahu has sought to expand Israel’s diplomatic sphere, reaching out to countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa normally downplayed as partners, and at the same time has sought secret cooperation with some Sunni Muslim states in the Persian Gulf.

The ultimate goal of his vision to improve ties is to end the automatic majority the Palestinians have in international forums such as the UN, and thus force Ramallah to abandon its strategy of internationalization of the conflict and to resume bilateral negotiations, he said.

“Israel is perceived here, but not only here, as a world power in some areas, such as technology, intelligence, water, agriculture, cyber security and other areas I will not detail here. This is how Israel is seen,” he said.

Many countries are keen to cooperate with Israeli in these matters and build stronger alliances, including super powers such as Russia, China, Japan and India, as well Arab countries in the Middle East and Latin American countries, he said.

“My goal is to talk directly and seriously with the Palestinians. But that’s impossible because they are escaping to international forums where they have an automatic majority,” he said. Rather than to negotiate directly with Israel, the Palestinians choose to unilaterally turn to international bodies to advance their statehood bid, the prime minister lamented.

His policy to expand Israel’s foreign ties “will lead to a situation in which the Palestinians will no longer have this shelter and will have to discuss with us on a bilateral basis, something they refuse to do it as long as they have the international refuge.”

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