MK Hilik Bar (L), co-chairman of the Knesset’s Israel-Georgia Parliamentary Friendship Group, Georgian Parliament Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, President Reuven Rivlin, and Georgia's Ambassador to Israel Paata Kalandadze meet in Jerusalem on Wednesday..
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
While much of Europe has seen a rise in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions buzz, political leaders from the Republic of Georgia seem not to have heard of the anti-Israel movement.
“What’s BDS?” shrugged Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of Georgia’s parliament, as he turned to aides on Thursday. It is a sign that ties between Israel and Georgia remain undisturbed by the conflict with the Palestinians.
The two countries are celebrating a quarter-century of diplomatic ties this year, and Georgia and Israel have seen a flurry of political leaders travel back and forth in recent months to discuss trade ties and geopolitical uncertainty in the region. Meeting with The Jerusalem Post at the ornate Waldorf-Astoria hotel near Jerusalem’s Old City, Kobakhidze listed industries where the two countries could cooperate, including in hi-tech innovation, cybersecurity, and agricultural technology.
“We are interested in developing agriculture ties, because right now, we don’t have the proper level of technology. It affects social conditions because around half the Georgian population is employed in agriculture, so here, we place a special emphasis,” Kobakhidze said, adding that the country is aggressively adopting Israeli-developed ag-tech.
This year, about 120,000 Israeli tourists will visit Georgia, and the numbers are increasing by 60% annually on average. Many more Israelis began to visit Georgia after relations with Turkey soured and locals sought an inexpensive weekend getaway. In the summer, there are some 100 monthly flights between the two countries.
“Georgia is a very friendly country and very friendly to Jews and Israelis.
You are always welcome to Georgia and any person who has ever visited Tbilisi [the capital], they will confirm that the hospitality is here. They have positive feelings for Israel. It’s a very good touristic destination for the people from Israel, we are proud of the growing numbers. This is also very good for doing business, for Israeli businessmen,” Kobakhidze said.
A number of Israeli investors are developing hotels and buying real estate in the country, said Itzik Moshe, president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business. It is easier for Israeli hoteliers to get a foot in the door, as operating costs are much lower than at home. Direct investment into Georgia from Israeli and Diaspora Jews is valued at some $500 million, Moshe said, largely because of real estate speculation. Direct trade between the two countries is smaller, estimated at around $20 million annually, and the two countries have so far signed some 30 bilateral agreements.
Israeli arm exports to the country were halted during the Georgian-Russian War in 2008, in the face of pressure from Moscow. That hasn’t stopped Haifa-based arms manufacturer Elbit Systems from opening an aviation factory close to the capital of Tbilisi, employing some 300 workers.
And the Georgian defense minister, Levan Izoria, has plans to visit Israel “quite soon,” Kobakhidze said.
In his pitch to Israeli investors, the parliament chairman mentioned that Georgia is ranked the 16th-easiest country out of 190 for doing business in the world, according to the World Bank, a statistic that Kobakhidze touts often.
Georgia is unusual in that it maintains strong ties with both Israel and Iran simultaneously. Kobakhidze pushed back against the idea that his country’s ties to Iran and its rocky relationship with Russia were an obstacle to Georgian-Israeli ties.
“I don’t think it [Iran] can affect relations.
And a least with our policies toward the Russians, we have a clear platform. We have different policies,” he said.
A large Knesset delegation will visit Georgia during Hanukka in mid-December to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary and work on ways to help Israeli businesses work in the country. Some 2,000 Jews live in Georgia and more than 100,000 Israelis trace their heritage back to the country.