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December 19, 2016 2:25 pm

Netanyahu Eyes Model for Muslim-Jewish Ties in Visits to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan

avatar by Sean Savage / JNS.org

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (left) are welcomed at Kazakhstan’s President's Palace Dec. 14, 2016. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (left) are welcomed at Kazakhstan’s President’s Palace Dec. 14, 2016. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

JNS.org — In the hope of offering a blueprint for ramping up constructive Israeli and Jewish relations with the Islamic world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week made historic visits to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two Muslim-majority nations in Central Asia.

While delivering remarks at the Great Synagogue of Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, Netanyahu noted that he was speaking “in Central Asia, in an Islamic country that respects Israel, that honors coexistence and tolerance and constitutes a model of what needs to happen — and can happen — in our region, as well.”

Similarly, in Azerbaijan, Netanyahu lauded Israeli-Azerbaijani ties as “something that we can show the world…[that] sees so much intolerance, so much darkness.” He added, “Here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere.”

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Azerbaijani Ambassador to the US Elin Suleymanov told JNS.org that Netanyahu’s visit is not only a significant step in intergovernmental relations, but holds great meaning for Azerbaijan’s vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

“This connection with the Jewish community is the backbone of our relations [with Israel],” Suleymanov said.

Both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are home to small, yet historically significant, Jewish communities numbering in the thousands, populations that contracted following steep immigration to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s so-called “Mountain Jews” have a long history dating back to ancient Persia, while Kazakhstan’s community is a mix of Ashkenazi-Russian Jews and Bukharian and Mountain Jews.

Professor Brenda Shaffer, a specialist on Central Asia and the Caucasus region who is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, told JNS.org that Azerbaijan has a “strong secular tradition” that she believes underlies its warm relations with Israel. Azerbaijan has long been “very cosmopolitan,” and advanced in its ideas of equality, even enfranchising women before the US, Shaffer said.

“The Jews of Azerbaijan are very integrated into the society. They are not ‘tolerated,’ like they are in some other parts of the world. They are part of the society,” Shaffer said, adding that the country’s leaders — and their families — all speak very warmly about their personal relations with Jews, especially regarding their children’s Jewish teachers in schools.

Dr. Avinoam Idan — a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University and a University of Haifa professor — told JNS.org that when he first visited Central Asia and the Caucasus region in the late 1980s, he was very impressed with the emphasis on separation of church and state.

“As someone coming from the Middle East, where religion and politics are mixed together, I was totally impressed when I came to these countries. Islam is entirely separated from politics and foreign policy,” he said.

As Ambassador Suleymanov noted, the Muslim Azerbaijan maintains strong relationships with both the world’s only Jewish state and Christian peoples, even hosting Pope Frances in October.

Idan explained that because the Soviet Union fell only in 1991, these Central Asian and Caucasus countries are new to the world stage and exist apart from the legacy of anti-Israel sentiment and intolerance that dominated the Islamic world during the 20th century.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visit Jewish students and educators at the Chabad house in Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 13. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visit Jewish students and educators at the Chabad house in Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 13. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

“They were less exposed to the culture of the Middle Eastern [Muslim-majority] countries. They are young countries, and while they have their challenges, they don’t spend their time on the conflicts of the Islamic world,” he said.

Iran looms large

Israel’s warm relationships with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan stand in stark contrast to Iran, whose presence hovers over the Jewish state’s ties in the region.

Azerbaijan has particularly complicated relations with Iran, who sits on Azerbaijan’s southern border, as Tehran supported Armenia during the years-long Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Further, Iran is concerned that Azerbaijan serves as a base for Israel’s intelligence gathering on Iranian activities.

Additionally, though Iran is home to a sizable Azerbaijani minority — different estimates place the number anywhere from 16 percent to a quarter of the total population, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself half-Azerbaijani — and despite the fact that Persians and Azerbaijan share the Shi’a Islam faith, Iran views a prosperous Azerbaijan as a threat.

“[The Iranians] don’t really like to see Israel being a close partner with Azerbaijan. Iran follows the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan closely, and they are not happy about it,” said Idan.

During Netanyahu’s visit, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made his first public revelation on the extent of Israel’s military ties with Azerbaijan. Aliyev said that, to date, his country has purchased close to $5 billion in defense equipment from the Jewish state.

Iran also looms larger over Israel’s relations with Kazakhstan, a nation with warmer ties to Tehran than Azerbaijan. When Netanyahu met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Israeli leader asked Nazarbayev if he could deliver a message to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is embarking on a visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

“Ask him why Iran continues to threaten us with annihilation,” Netanyahu reportedly told Nazarbayev. “Don’t you understand? We’re not a rabbit. We’re a tiger…if Iran attacks Israel, it will put itself at risk.”

Threat of radical Islam

While both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have long histories of religious tolerance, in recent years radical Islam has started to pose a threat in the region. This is especially true in Kazakhstan, which is facing an uptick in terror attacks over the past year — including its deadliest attack ever in June, in which Islamic terrorists killed 25 people in the city of Aktobe.

“Kazakhstan has had some serious Islamic terrorism incidents,” Shaffer told JNS.org. “They are starting to build real borders with their neighbors. So things like border control and counterterrorism, as well as understanding how to deal with these Islamic terrorism threats are really important.”

In Azerbaijan, she said, “There are also some who are trying to change” the culture and mounting extremist threats.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Nazarbayev announced that he requested Israel’s assistance in helping to train Kazakh special forces to fight terrorism.

A model for the Muslim world

Idan told JNS.org that Israel and Azerbaijan find many similarities in each other, elements that form the basis of their relations.

“Azerbaijan sees Israel as a model, a country that is located in a very tough neighborhood that is succeeding and keeping its sovereignty while also having this great prosperity in its economy, science and military,” he said.

Israel, Idan said, “has great respect for Azeribajan over its treatment of the Jews and feel they have a lot to contribute in high-tech, culture and health to help the country.”

Shaffer believes that Israel needs these Central Asian countries not only on a pragmatic level, but also to show Israeli children that the Muslim world isn’t entirely against Jews and that they should not grow up fearing Muslims.

“When they see the Israeli flag flying together with the Azerbaijani flag, which has the Muslim crescent on it, it does provide some encouragement to other Muslim countries who may not want to delegitimize Israel,” she said.

Azerbaijan’s Suleymanov, meanwhile, believes his country can serve as an honest broker in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Because Azerbaijan has such a good relationship with Israel and is also very supportive of the Palestinian people,” he said, “that provides a certain opportunity to speak to both sides with equal authority.”

Netanyahu’s trips to the Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are part of an ongoing push by the Jewish state to forge closer ties with many non-traditional allies in Africa, South America and Asia. The Israeli leader visited several countries in East Africa earlier this year, and has plans to return for visits to that continent’s western nations.

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