With last week’s UN General Assembly resolution condemning Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, the small Caucasian country of Georgia did not vote.
It’s a shift since 2012 when Georgia voted to recognize Palestine as a UN observer state. The turnaround may be due to burgeoning diplomatic ties between Israel and the Caucasian country wedged between Russia and Turkey.
Yet warm ties between the Jewish state and Georgia may seem counterintuitive, given its increasingly close trade ties to Iran. When asked about Iranian influence, Georgia’s Parliament chairman Irakli Kobakhidze cited the country’s desire to be close to the United States, and supporting Israel – a close US ally – may help with that goal.
Visiting Georgia last week with a Hanukka delegation of Knesset members and Israeli businessmen, The Jerusalem Post
saw firsthand the efforts of president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Commerce Itsik Moshe to promote bilateral relations.
The two countries are celebrating a quarter-century of diplomatic ties, as a rush of political leaders and businessmen travel back and forth this year to broker deals and grapple with the region’s geopolitical uncertainty.
Joining Moshe were MK Akram Hasson (Kulanu) and MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union), who both met with Georgian politicians, toured local universities and visited the country’s “Israeli House,” a center for promoting Israeli public relations.
In Tbilisi, like in Tel Aviv, it’s a common to see uniformed soldiers strolling about with machine guns perched on their shoulders. Both Georgia and Israel are stuck in tough neighborhoods – with Russia occupying two formerly-Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Israel feels a similar threat, from much larger Iran stationing its soldiers near its Syrian border.
“Like Israel, Georgia faces a complex situation in which it’s surrounded by strong and big countries,” Shmuli said. “So they have to coordinate between the constraints. It’s one of the reasons we have such a good connection; they can identify with our history and we can see their history, in terms of overcoming many obstacles, sometimes really against all odds.”
In terms of political support for the Jewish state Moshe’s initiative, the Israeli House, is a hasbara pilot that could be adopted worldwide. When visiting, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has looked into expanding the pro-Israel cultural center to other European countries. Established four years ago, the center partly works with Israel’s Foreign Ministry to both hold programming and coordinate media messaging.
Moshe described the mission behind the Israeli House in simple, public relations terms. “We propose to begin immediately in countries that do not yet know of BDS in order to save Israel’s image and to broadcast Israel’s truth before it is too late,” he said.
Israelis abound in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. “At the University of Georgia and speaking Hebrew on the elevator, we bumped into Anas Hishaer, a Druse medical student from the Golan Heights. Hishaer has no passport but a laissez-passer, and he also mentioned visa difficulties. After speaking with Hishaer, Hasson said the student had received help in navigating the bureaucratic process.
Aside from visiting exchange students, the two countries are seeking to cooperate in hi-tech, cybersecurity and agricultural technology, with Georgians seeking to adopt Israeli innovations in these fields.
“Georgians are interested in adapting hi-tech in the country, which opens many new opportunities for Israelis in Georgia,” Moshe said.
While Israel cut off defense contracts with Georgia after the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, that hasn’t stopped investment and business ties between the two countries. Haifa-based arms manufacturer Elbit Systems recently opened an aviation factory close to the capital of Tbilisi, employing some 300 workers.
MK Hasson is now trying to be a matchmaker between the Israeli hi-tech sector and Georgian companies.
“I also support an exhibition for Israeli hi-tech companies to come here to Tbilisi,” Hasson said. “They should put on a big exhibition, to try to find partners here, to set-up companies here, and to do what Israeli businessmen did in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. We know that the Jewish mind and the Druse mind can do a lot of things.”
A number of Israeli real estate investors are developing hotels and buying property in the country, according to Moshe, who is also president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business. With the cost of living in Georgia much less expensive, it is easier for Israeli hoteliers to get their feet off the ground.
Direct investment into Georgia from Israeli and Diaspora Jews is valued at some $500 million, Moshe said, primarily due to real estate speculation. Direct trade between the two countries is smaller, estimated at around $20m. annually, and the two countries have so far signed some 30 bilateral agreements. The delegation also saw the groundbreaking of an Israeli-led project, the $12m. planned Art Hotel in the heart of Tbilisi’s old city.
In 2017, an estimated 120,000 Israeli tourists visited Georgia, and the numbers are increasing on average by 70% annually. Many more Israelis began to visit Georgia after relations with Turkey soured in 2010, and locals sought an inexpensive weekend getaway. In the summer months, some 100 monthly flights connect Tbilisi to Tel Aviv.
Some 2,000 Jews live in Georgia, with at least 100,000 Israelis tracing their heritage back to the Caucasian country.The writer was a guest of The Israeli House in Georgia.
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