Israeli politicians with Utopian fantasies about a future Middle East talk about Israel’s existing diplomatic ties with Egypt and Jordan.
Many tend to overlook the fact that these are not the only Muslim countries that have entered into diplomatic relations with Israel.
Among the others is Uzbekistan, whose ambassador, Oybek Eshonov, is one of the longest-serving foreign envoys currently heading a diplomatic mission in Israel. A first-time ambassador, he arrived in Israel in December 2008 and presented his credentials to then president Shimon Peres in January, 2009. The average ambassadorial period of tenure in any country is two-to-four years.
There are ambassadors who stay for much longer, and there are also ambassadors who leave after a year or two, because they are posted somewhere else or because they are promoted. Several former ambassadors to Israel were recalled not because their governments were in disagreement with certain Israeli policies, but because they were summoned to take on the office of foreign minister.
Eshonov’s initial career choice was that of an educator. After graduating from the faculty of Oriental Studies at Tashkent University, he worked as a language teacher at the university, teaching the new history of Iran after the revolution, and the Persian language in accordance with the Tehran dialect, which is the most widely used of all Persian dialects. While not all Iranians understand each other’s dialects, which vary greatly from region to region, Eshonov notes that everyone understands the Tehran dialect.
In 1992, Eshonov entered the diplomatic service as a translator and was assigned to an administration department that dealt not only with translators but in coordinating appointments for visiting dignitaries.
He gradually moved through the ranks and in 1999 was posted to Tehran as third secretary at the Embassy of Uzbekistan. He remained in Iran till 2003 and during this period was promoted to second secretary. There was a change of ambassadors at the embassy while he was there and he escorted the new ambassador when the latter presented his credentials to President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Eshonov’s proficiency in the Persian language stood him in good stead during the years he served in Iran, and also when his ambassador met with Iranian dignitaries.
In Israel, in addition to the friendships he has cultivated among his fellow countrymen who now live in this country, Eshonov has made friends with Iranian expats such as Prof. Motti Haridim, the vice president for academic development at the Holon Institute of Technology, who in November is going to lecture at the University of Tashkent.
Although he came to Israel at the age of 11, Haridim speaks an excellent Persian, says Eshonov.
Being in close contact with Jews is no novelty for Eshonov, who grew up with Jewish classmates and Jewish neighbors. “Uzbekistan is a secular country in which no distinctions are made between people of different faiths, race or ideology, he says.
He is very proud of the fact that Uzbekistan was not only able but willing to give shelter to thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis.
“After the war, many of them came to Israel, and after the fall of Communist rule, many Uzbeks came to Israel,” he noted.
Foremost among his fellow countrymen in Israel is philanthropist, diamond tycoon, property developer and investor in chemicals Lev Leviev, who is president of the World Congress of Bukharan Jews. Every Passover Leviev, who is affiliated with Chabad, sends huge consignments of wine and matza to Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States to ensure that every Jew in the former Soviet Union will have the most essential ingredients associated with Passover.
Such products are subject to import tax, but with the help of Ambassador Eshonov, the taxes with regard to the consignment designated for Uzbekistan are reduced by some 40%-50%.
Jews have lived in Uzbekistan for more than a thousand years, and while there have been some unpleasant periods in that time, by and large Jews have been free of persecution and have integrated well into mainstream life and have had prominent places in politics and the free professions.
Eshonov, who was born in Tashkent, says that his father taught him that all people, regardless of race or religion, are equal and that they have to be respected. This was always his outlook and that of the population of Uzbekistan in general.
“Uzbekistan has a rich Jewish heritage,” he says, speaking with pride about the number of synagogues and the fact that Jewish cemeteries, which like all others are controlled by the government, are well cared for.
In interviews that he gave to the media following the recent death of president Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan Chief Rabbi Baruch Abramzaiov was quoted as saying: “The president had excellent relations with the Jewish community, in part because he went to school with many of its members and had many friends from its ranks, and this situation is expected to continue.”
Uzbekistan’s Jews are not worried about their future, said Abramzaiov. Uzbekistan’s Jews are concentrated in Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara.
Elections for a successor to Karimov are to be held on December 4. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev is serving as interim president.
Israelis who want to visit Uzbekistan don’t have a problem, says Eshonov, because there are four flights a week between Tashkent and Tel Aviv.
Although a lot of Israelis have visited Uzbekistan, Eshonov would like to see a significant increase in tourism, promising that his country, though striving to be a modern democracy, understands the need to preserve the treasures of antiquity, which means that tourists will have the best of both worlds.
Most of the tourism to Israel from Uzbekistan he says is in the nature of medical tourism, but he would like to see more regular tourism.
“The world comes to Israel. We have good hospitals and medical equipment, but Israel is the best.”
There is an Israel-Uzbekistan Medical center in Tashkent which was built and equipped by Israel, he emphasizes, and Israeli doctors work there and when necessary, refer patients to Israeli hospitals, primarily to Hadassah, Beilinson and Ichilov.
In addition, Israeli physicians regularly visit Uzbekistan to give master classes to medical students and interns.
Although he has been in Israel for almost eight years, Eshonov continues to be surprised at the rate of progress in Israel, and says with admirable candor: “We would like to be like you.” He also refers to Israel as “our reliable partner in the Middle East” and notes that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Uzbekistan when it achieved independence, and opened the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent in 1992..
He also appreciates the strong political dialogue between Israel and Uzbekistan, and the assistance and training that Uzbek agriculturalists, doctors, nurses, small business proprietors and high tech entrepreneurs receive from MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.
Eshonov is very keen for such cooperation to continue and to be enhanced. Every month, he says ten people specializing in different fields of endeavor come from Uzbekistan to undertake MASHAV courses.
“Our government understands the need for this cooperation and thanks the government of Israel for its help,” he says.
What he does lament is that “bilateral trade is not as high as we would want” and he is searching for ways to improve the situation.
Uzbekistan exports cottons, other textiles, and chemicals to Israel and imports security and medical equipment and other technology based items.
He is currently trying to arrange an Uzbek-Israel joint commission to convene in Tashkent in 2017.
Israelis, especially those of Uzbek origin, are highly regarded in Uzbekistan. In March this year, when Jeremy Issacharoff, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry and highest-ranking Israeli official of Bukharan descent, was in Tashkent leading a strategic dialogue, his presence became a media highlight. Issacharoff was born in London, but members of his affluent family settled in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter early in the 20th century and built a large orphanage in downtown Jerusalem. Eshonov is very proud of Issacharoff’s background and hopes that he will participate in the joint commission next year.
Eshonov, his wife Mahira, their son Kamron, 17, and their daughter Laziza, 14, live in Herzliya Pituah.
Most children of diplomats attend the American school, but Eshonov’s children attend the Russian school, because they went to a Russian school at home. Aside from that, Eshonov explains, Russian is these days an international language.
It’s a language that he himself speaks often in Israel, including to his driver, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, though occasionally they speak their native tongue, which Eshonov says is similar to Turkish.
Like some of his ambassadorial colleagues in Israel, Eshonov is sports oriented, with a preference for soccer, but doesn’t have much time to play.
“To be an ambassador in Israel is very hard,” he says with a grin. “Israel is the No. 1 newsmaker in the world, so you have a lot of work. I represent a Muslim country – but one that is friendly to Israel.” As part of his work, and also as a leisure time pursuit, Eshonov likes to travel around the country, and likes Jerusalem best. “This country will influence many changes in the region, and will have more friends in Muslim countries,” he predicts.