Foreign minister lauds expansion of Israeli diplomatic clout into Eurasia region

In ToI interview, Eli Cohen talks up Israel’s recent diplomatic achievements, defends Azerbaijan arms sales, and says he wants another year in office despite deal with Israel Katz

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has eight more months in office — until December 29, 2023, when he is scheduled to be replaced by Energy Minister Israel Katz. Then, sometime in 2026, he is meant to return to the role of top diplomat, at least according to an internal Likud rotation agreement.

Because of the unusual arrangement, Cohen has been setting short-term goals for his prestigious role, and favoring trips to locations where he can play up his influence. These include stops in Khartoum and Kyiv; the opening of Omani airspace to flights from Israel; assistance to Turkey in dealing with its devastating earthquake earlier this year, and the unusual visit last week in Turkmenistan, a very isolated country where Israel wants to establish a foothold due to its proximity to Iran.

Before arriving in Turkmenistan, Cohen traveled with an entourage of some 30 Israeli businesspeople to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, where Israel has a range of interests: weapons exports, the sale of water desalination equipment and satellites, and the source of one-third of its oil needs.

Cohen spoke to The Times of Israel about his agenda as foreign minister during a layover in Istanbul — after a four-hour flight from the strange Turkmen capital of Ashgabat and before a flight back to Tel Aviv.

“In the past, we at the Foreign Ministry emphasized the Persian Gulf countries in an effort to expand the Abraham Accords, as well as African nations,” Cohen said.

“With this visit, to two large and significant countries, we are expanding into the Eurasia region. They may be Muslim nations, but religion doesn’t play a significant role for them.”

In this handout photo, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Turkmen Rasit Meredow inaugurate Israel’s new embassy in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, April 20, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

The Times of Israel: Your first visit as foreign minister was to Sudan. You formed a relationship with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and you came close to signing an agreement. But the Americans asked to wait due to the volatile political situation there, and now everything has taken a turn for the worse. There is no longer any real significance to that visit because the country is in the throes of a struggle between two military factions.

Cohen: The important thing is for Sudan not to backslide, that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where Islamist elements take the reins, such as in the time of Omar al-Bashir [the Sudanese dictator who ruled for 30 years until his overthrow in 2019].

Everyone knows how it begins, but no one knows how it ends. That is why there is intensive activity by the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in order to bring things back to the way they were.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) meets with Sudanese ruler Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum on February 2, 2023. (Shlomi Amsallem)

How can Israel turn back the wheel in Sudan?

We’re conveying messages and trying to calm the situation. We’re also in touch with the Egyptians. In our region, you need to show initiative and push in order for things to happen — not wait for them to happen on their own. Sudan has been in a transitional government situation for over a year. Heightened American involvement is crucial.

According to an internal Likud agreement, you have a year in the role of foreign minister, then two as energy minister. That’s a limited amount of time. To outside observers, it seems you’re trying to race ahead to generate influence in a short timeframe. You don’t have time for longer processes.

To me, it seems like a one-year, two-year, one-year rotation is less than ideal. It would be better to swap roles in the middle of the government’s term, and I will speak about this with Israel [Katz] soon.

The ministers who served before me in the role each did so for a year — Israel Katz, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Yair Lapid. I believe that the four-year term should be divided into equal parts. Since entering office, I formulated a working plan based on the assumption that I will be serving a year, and already in the first four months we managed to generate breakthroughs.

We laid the groundwork for relations with Sudan, we improved ties with Turkey, we opened Oman’s airspace for flights, we restored our relationship with Poland, Papua New Guinea announced that it will open an embassy in Jerusalem, we had an important visit in Kyiv and we traveled to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. These are achievements that others did not attain in [just] a year in office.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in Warsaw on March 22, 2023 (Foreign Ministry)

Did others see diminished success because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sabotaged them?

What? [Cohen laughs] In every ministry where I worked, whether economy or intelligence, I initiated policies. Everywhere I was I worked hard. In the Foreign Ministry, it is easy to execute policies relatively quickly. It isn’t like the Energy Ministry where, from the moment you publish a tender or an infrastructure project, it can take years until things happen.

You met with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. In recent years, Israel has taken Azerbaijan’s side in its war against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Israel supplied the Azeris with massive amounts of weapons. Some reports spoke of cluster munitions injuring Armenian civilians. Meanwhile, the Azeris say they won the war thanks to these weapons. 

Most of the G7 countries have powerful arms industries; France, the US — they sell weapons too.

But we’re not the G7, we’re the Jewish state. Do you not see this as a moral stain? Our message is meant to be “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

We live in one of the most complicated regions of the world and we’ve developed massive and powerful military capabilities. I think we’re conducting ourselves responsibly and scrupulously following international regulations — we do not sell weapons to countries with problems.

Rescuers carry the body of a woman killed by shelling during the ongoing military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the disputed province’s capital of Stepanakert on November 6, 2020. (Karen MINASYAN / AFP)

Is Azerbaijan not such a country? They targeted uninvolved civilians.

We sell the same kind of equipment sold by most democratic countries. We have a ministerial committee that examines these deals and ensures that we don’t sell to problematic countries.

Did this committee convene since the government took office?

Yes, I am a member of the committee and it did convene.

And did you cancel any deals?

No, there were no canceled deals

During you visit, it was reported that Azerbaijan made a deal to buy satellites from an Israeli company.

We were told by the Azeris that they had chosen an Israeli company to make a deal to purchase satellites, but I have to say that the more significant agreement is for the sale of water desalination facilities. Beyond that, the visit in Baku was mostly meant to show appreciation for them opening an embassy in Israel after a 30-year relationship.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, April 19, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

This transpired thanks to the thaw in relations with Turkey and as an indirect consequence of the Abraham Accords.

Do you regret your tweet against the governor of the Bank of Israel over the increase in interest rates? His course of action cooled off the market, something which you [Likud-led governments] tried for many years during the period of Moshe Kahlon as finance minister.

I don’t regret it and I didn’t delete the tweet because I said clearly that other tools need to be used to halt inflation – not just raising interest rates.

As someone who previously worked in the credit rating agencies, as someone who is an accountant and knows the field, there are two tools for fighting inflation – monetary and fiscal. The governor and the finance minister are making life easy for themselves. They could have employed other tools such as reducing excise tax, reducing the cost of electricity, which would have reduced inflation. The small reduction in the cost of apartments today is cancelled out by the sharp rise in the cost of mortgages.

Young couples who took a mortgage have a lot less disposable income because of the increase in mortgage payments. Is it not possible to criticize the governor? In the spirit of the times, if you think differently from a senior clerk he becomes holy and you get criticized.

Most people who criticized me know I’m right. The governor must remain independent, but what I said was that we need to use different tools in order to reduce inflation and therefore I deliberately did not delete that tweet.

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron speaks during a press conference at the Bank of Israel in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The interest rate rises began before you entered government, it’s not as if the governor is doing this against your government.

I don’t think he’s doing it against us, and I don’t think he’s doing it out of political considerations, I don’t attribute any political considerations to him. But he is also the state’s economic adviser and he needs to offer other tools for the fight against inflation. Raising interest rates reduces disposable income and reduces personal consumption, and at the end of the day will cause unemployment and will reduce the viability of investments.

But reducing excise tax and reducing electricity costs in order to draw down inflation is not under the authority of the governor.

That’s why I said that the finance minister is also responsible for the situation and he has independence over the budget, and they need to sit down together and plan things properly for the country. Yes, the legal reform is important but I am thinking about the youth who need to pay their mortgage and are broke every month.

You worked for a credit rating agency, how do you see the decision by Moody’s to reduce the credit rating outlook?

Moody’s said basically that Israel’s figures are very good, but on the other hand, since there is chaos within the Israeli public – the [judicial] reform is creating tension in society and therefore they reduced the ratings outlook without fundamentally understanding the reform.

Thousands of Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul program in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

They were reacting to the mood. I have great respect for the protestors and they come and demonstrate outside my house. But regarding Moody’s rating, it is not reasonable that people speak out against Israel around the world.

The protestors are chopping off the branch they’re sitting on. There is no connection between the reform and Israel’s banking sector which is stable and regulated, but they acted in order to create panic.

It’s not that people acted to create panic, but rather they were alarmed by you [the government], by the course of action you put on the table. We are returning now from Azerbaijan, a country where the government selects judges, obviously people were alarmed by this, they think it creates a problem for the market.

Why did people get alarmed? Someone who thinks Israel will be weakened [by the judicial overhaul] is applying their own interpretation.

Regarding the appointment of judges, I told Netanyahu my opinion – we are the start up nation with regards innovation, but in the legal world we don’t need to be creative. It would be preferable for us to take a model which works in other countries, like Germany, and build a reform on their model.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in the Knesset plenum, March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I would do a more substantive reform, in which judges are in no way involved in the appointment of judges – and are appointed only by parliament, as happens in the [German] Bundestag.

But in Germany there are other checks and balances, they have two houses of parliament, a federal system; a special legal committee which recommends judges in which jurists are members.

I think that we need to create a situation whereby judges are not part of the Judicial Selection Committee. We need a situation in which the justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the Knesset plenum with a substantial majority of around 72 MKs, which is exactly 60 percent of the Knesset. In a process like that the court will be more heterogenous and it will increase public trust in the legal system.

But such a proposal is not currently on the agenda.

Now that we have a time-out from this legislation, we can think about it.

How will this whole issue end? Is Netanyahu postponing the votes on the regime overhaul until after the approval of the budget? Are the rumors about the whole issue melting away are true?

Honestly, Netanyahu wants to get to a broad consensus. If you ask me, if the change to the Judicial Selection Committee is passed then some of the other parts of the reform are unnecessary.

The Judicial Selection Committee during the 34th government of Israel convenes, with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked together with then-Supreme Court president Miriam Naor, then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon and other members of the Israeli Judicial Selection Committee, February 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

If there is a change to the Judicial Selection Committee we expect that judicial activism will decrease, and then there is less need for a High Court override, for example. I said in the Likud faction meeting that we must build a good reform for the next 20 to 30 years. If it is not built properly, it simply won’t last. Another government will come along and cancel everything.

I do not, as a coalition member, want to control the appointment of judges, I want an independent, heterogenous, strong legal system with public trust. Sometimes the court needs to be smart and not right.

Take the Hametz Law, for example, I don’t think we have earned anything from this law. Unfortunately, the court should have said that not everything is justiciable. Just like you don’t legislate a law against using a car on Yom Kippur, so too you don’t need to legislate a Hametz law. I wish it had not come to that.

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