On PM’s visit to Asian Muslim states, a not-so-subtle message to the Arab world
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AnalysisWhen it comes to religious tolerance, Astana and Baku are worlds apart from Riyadh or Doha

On PM’s visit to Asian Muslim states, a not-so-subtle message to the Arab world

Netanyahu sees his trip to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan as a model for warming relations, but the two countries he toured are atypical in their approach to Islam

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

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) inspect an honor guard during their meeting in Astana on December 14, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/ILYAS OMAROV)
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) inspect an honor guard during their meeting in Astana on December 14, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/ILYAS OMAROV)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Addressing members of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community Tuesday in a school operated by the Chabad movement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled his meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe 32 years ago.

“You are going to the house of darkness, and remember that if you light one candle of truth, it will shine a precious light that will be seen from far away,” Netanyahu quoted the rabbi as telling him as he took up his post as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Ever since, I have tried to do just as the Rebbe said.”

Later in his speech, Netanyahu said he was moved by the boys and girls of the local Jewish choir, who treated their prominent guest from the Holy Land to renditions of “Shalom Aleichem,” “Hava Nagila” and an Azeri folk song.

“But I am very moved by something else,” he said, pointing to the Israeli and Azerbaijani flags on the stage. One has a Jewish Star of David, the other, the Muslim crescent moon. “Look at these two flags. This is what we want to show the world – this is what can be and what needs to be,” Netanyahu said. “It is the exact opposite, but the exact opposite, of the darkness; this light, this is the light that dispels the darkness.”

During his historic trip this week to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan — two Muslim states, one Shiite and one Sunni — this was the prime minister’s key message: Wouldn’t it be great if Muslims and Jews, Israel and the Arab world, could get along?

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara with pupils at the Or Avner Jewish educational complex in Baku, Azerbaijan, December 13, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara with pupils at the Or Avner Jewish educational complex in Baku, Azerbaijan, December 13, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“I don’t deny that I have double intentions,” he told reporters on Wednesday evening as his busy two-day trip wound down. While he is genuinely interested in boosting trade and security ties with these countries, he also wanted to use his visit to show moderate Arab states that it is possible for Muslim states to have strong and overt ties with Israel, he explained.

For several years now, Netanyahu has been talking nonstop about how some of Israel’s Arab neighbors no longer see the Jewish state as an enemy but rather an “indispensable ally” in the struggle against radical Sunni Islam and increasingly aggressive Shiite Iran. But so far, these ties have remain clandestine: the states Netanyahu is talking about have not publicly changed their tune about the hated Zionist regime. (Timid signs of a rapprochement can be spotted occasionally, such as meetings between Israelis and former Saudi officials, but the Arab world largely still officially views Israel as an enemy state.)

In Baku and Astana, Netanyahu reiterated, over and over again, that the undisguised friendship between two Muslim countries and the Jewish state should serve as a model for other states to emulate. At times it sounded as if his words were more addressed to Riyadh and other capitals in the Gulf than to his audiences in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

“There is a change that we see in many parts of the Muslim world and specifically the Arab world,” Netanyahu said Tuesday in Baku’s Zagulba Palace during his meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. “But I think if they want to see what the future could be, come to Azerbaijan and see the friendship and the partnership between Israel and Azerbaijan. It’s not only good for both our countries and both our peoples, I think it’s good for the region and good for the world.”

On Wednesday, in Astana’s magnificent Akorda presidential palace, he repeated the assertion almost verbatim. Evidently intent on being widely heard in the Arab world, he emphasized — some would say overstated — his message by declaring that “this example of Muslim-Jewish cooperation is something that reverberates around the world.”

The flags of Israel and Azerbaijan in Baku's presidential Zagulba Palace, right before PM Netanyahu met with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, December 13, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The flags of Israel and Azerbaijan in Baku’s presidential Zagulba Palace, right before PM Netanyahu met with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, December 13, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The Arab world is changing, he added, and Israel’s relations with Kazakhstan are a “part of this great change that the world is waiting for.”

(In the Hebrew press, Netanyahu’s visit garnered relatively little attention, a fact he lamented in a bitter Facebook post asking his followers to let their friends know about it.)

Netanyahu spared no one his enthusiasm for these new interactions. At a conference for Israeli and Kazakh businessman, he said that the “great friendship” between Jewish Israel and Muslim Kazakhstan is a “welcome message to all of humanity” and an “example for the region and for the world of how things can be and will be.”

Even in Astana’s Great Synagogue, where someone had hung up a huge poster of his meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Netanyahu made sure to hail Kazakhstan as a “Muslim country that respects Israel … and constitutes a model of what needs to happen – and can happen – in our region as well.”

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Chabad rabbis at the Astana Great Synagogue, December 14, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chabad rabbis at the Astana Great Synagogue, December 14, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

To be sure, Netanyahu acknowledged that Arab nations will not recognize Israel overnight, “but there plainly is a trend,” he told the traveling press in Astana. But, he insisted, Israel’s extensive cooperation with various Muslim states “will eventually create a critical mass.”

A change will come

Important regional players though they may be, how much influence do Baku and Astana actually have in the Arab world?

The leaders of both countries announced their desire to strengthen ties with Israel and stressed their friendless toward Jews — but refrained from publicly committing to practically help Jerusalem reach out to the Arab world.

According to Israeli ambassador to Kazakhstan Michael Brodsky, change will come incrementally, but it will come. “I believe that indirectly, [Netanyahu’s visit] will influence the readiness of Arab states to have more open relations with Israel,” he told The Times of Israel. “There is no shame in developing normal, open, mutually beneficial relations with Israel. After all, we have common interests and common threats.”

Brenda Shaffer, an Israeli professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies, said Netanyahu’s visit creates a “general legitimacy for Muslim-majority countries and Muslims themselves to have connections with Israel.”

On the other hand, she pointed out, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states are exceptional in that they separate church and state. Baku, for example does not allow girls to be covered with hijab in schools. “Today, few Muslim-majority states keep the separation,” she said.

The approach to Islam is an important factor in understanding why some Muslim countries warmly host Netanyahu, while others deny maintaining any contacts with him.

Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Israel Doulat Kuanyshev (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Israel Doulat Kuanyshev (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Israel, Doulat Kuanyshev, told The Times of Israel that “we’re not a Muslim state; we’re a secular state first.”

The two countries Netanyahu visited pride themselves as promoters of religious and ethnic coexistence. Azerbaijan recently declared a “year of multiculturalism” and Kazakhstan is “a leader” in holding events where religious leaders of Iran and Israel “are sitting next to each other at the table,” Kuanyshev said.

None of this can be said of Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries Netanyahu wants to reach.

Kazakhstan is mostly interested in economic advancement, not in exporting its version of tolerance to the Arab world, Kuanyshev indicated. “We don’t want to impose our examples or our models,” he said. We’re just doing our thing, he indicated, and who knows, “probably some will choose to follow it.” Or not. When it comes to religious tolerance, Astana and Baku are worlds apart from Riyadh or Doha.

Another important difference between the countries that publicly embraced Israel and those who publicly shun it, of course, is on the Palestinian issue. In half a dozen public events held in Baku and Azerbaijan, the topic was simply non-existent. The terms “two-state solution” or “settlements” weren’t uttered. The countries Netanyahu visited are interested in Israeli technology and anti-terrorism expertise but care little about what Israel does in the West Bank.

The Arab states he wants to woo, by contrast, are still committed to the Palestinian question, at least on paper, and are thus unlikely to make official their cooperation as long as the plight of their Palestinian brethren is not dealt with. No, many Arab leaders don’t really care that much about Palestine either, but they fear domestic public opinion will not allow them to embrace Israel as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unsolved.

For all the truly boosted friendships on this trip, therefore, Netanyahu will probably have to wait a long time for the more significant breakthroughs he seeks. And no Israeli prime minister is likely to be posing for photographs in the remotely foreseeable future with the children of a local Jewish school choir anywhere in the hostile Arab world.

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