As US President Donald Trump is in Asia this week, a topic of conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping could be his ambitious multi-billion- dollar plan to create the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) – a modern Silk Road of trade and infrastructure connecting Asia to Europe and the Middle East.
Israel has a great opportunity to expand relations with Central Asian countries, which are the linchpin in the project, to tap into this bonanza.
By expanding Israel’s strong ties with the largely secular moderate Muslim states in Central Asia, and particularly with Kazakhstan, the “buckle in the belt” that serves as a hub through which East-West rail lines run, Israel could tap into this economic epicenter that would be connecting Europe and China.
The planned New Eurasian Land Bridge would be made up of railroads passing from China through Kazakhstan, and could include other countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The routes then would continue on to Europe and the Middle East through Russia, Iran and Turkey.
For now, Israel’s relations with Turkey are problematic, and with Iran even worse, however, Israel could exploit diplomatic and economic opportunities in Central Asia.
Israel’s relations with Kazakhstan are already flourishing, with great diplomatic, military, medical and economic cooperation, including cooperation in hi-tech and agriculture. As Uzbekistan is opening up under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Israel also has increasing opportunities there, as well as in gas-rich Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that are less endowed with mineral riches.
Michael Brodsky, the Israeli ambassador to Kazakhstan, said that “Israel is interested in getting involved in the ‘One Belt One Road’ Initiative.”
BRI has “close relations with Central Asian countries and can provide a unique opportunity for Israeli companies to benefit from huge Chinese investments – mainly in Kazakhstan, which is supposed to receive the lion’s share of these investments,” he said.
“Israeli technologies, especially in the field of security, may well fit in into the concept of the New Silk Road, since providing security of the infrastructure and facilities may become one of the main concerns of the project’s stakeholders,” added the ambassador.
Jerusalem also is interested in strengthening its relations with moderate Muslim countries and already depends on Kazakhstan for around 25% of its oil imports.
In addition, Kazakhstan has a small but active Jewish community.
Diplomacy with countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus “was effectively a recast of Ben-Gurion’s ‘periphery doctrine,” stated Gil Feiler and Kevjn Lim in a Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies report published in 2014. This 1950s strategy involved looking for allies beyond the hostile Arab world, in places like Iran and Turkey.
Brodsky also pointed out that the growing demand in China for organic agricultural products could become a serious incentive for the Israelis to get more involved in Kazakhstan’s agriculture.
The Israeli envoy also emphasized that “bilateral relations between Israel and Kazakhstan reached their peak in December last year with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to Kazakhstan.”
Recently, the two countries celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations.
Asked if Kazakhstan’s role in the Muslim world is hindering ties, the ambassador responded, “Despite Kazakhstan being part of the Muslim world, it openly maintains close and friendly relations with Israel.”
Furthermore, the ambassador said, “We still have many opportunities to be explored, especially in the economic field. Agriculture, health, telecommunications, security, renewable energy – we can expand and reach a level of strategic partnership.”
Regarding Israeli worries about the fact that Kazakhstan maintains cordial business relations with Iran and plans to sell Tehran 950 tons of uranium ore over three years in a deal that became potentially possible under the famous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, according to a Reuters report earlier this year, it appears Jerusalem is hoping its close relations with Astana will blunt Tehran’s inroads there.
Israel is now also training the Kazakh military in drone operations.
Samuel Ramani, in an article for The Diplomat in 2016, noted that while uranium sales to Iran have strained relations with the Jewish state, and corruption within the Kazakh military is a factor, “Kazakhstan remains Israel’s most important economic and security partner in Central Asia.”
Israel should advocate for Kazakhstan to limit its relations with Tehran as Netanyahu did during his visit there in December.
Jerusalem should pursue opportunities in Central Asia because it serves two main interests: promoting relations with moderate Muslim countries outside of the Arab world, and boosting the country’s economic interests by taking an active part in what the Chinese leader has called the “project of the century.”
The author is a writer on Middle East affairs. He covered the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is now writing a PhD dissertation at Bar-Ilan University on the Islamic Movement in Israel.Twitter at @Arielbensolomon