'Georgia uncertain of Iran's hand in terror plot'

Tbilisi says investigation into who was behind failed attack on Israeli vehicle not concluded; Georgian envoy tells ‘Post’ report of Israeli use of Azeri airfields in attack on Iran "doesn't make sense."

GEORGIAN AMBASSADOR to Israel Archil Kekelia and Peres (photo credit: Georgian embassy)
GEORGIAN AMBASSADOR to Israel Archil Kekelia and Peres
(photo credit: Georgian embassy)
The deputy head of the Mossad traveled to Tbilisi recently to meet with his Georgian colleagues investigating who was behind the failed February attack on an Israeli embassy vehicle there, Georgia’s Ambassador Archil Kekelia told The Jerusalem Post.
Though Israel quickly blamed Iran for the bombers who struck Israeli embassy personnel in Georgia and India on the same day, and attempted an attack in Thailand a day later, the Georgians – who are in Iran’s immediate backyard and have friendly relations with Tehran – have not yet concluded their investigation or cast any blame.
“The investigation is progressing, but no suspect has been arrested,” Kekelia said in an interview. While Georgia cannot stop others from speculating about the culprits, “we cannot say prematurely who did this,” he added.
Georgia has a no-visa, open-borders policy with Iran, but Kekelia said that Georgia has enough security to “prevent trouble.”
While Tbilisi is “on the same page” as the West regarding Iranian “non-proliferation,” he said “we want to maintain people- to-people contact with the country,” which includes an ethnic Georgian minority dating back centuries.
Reflective of the poisoned relations between Russia and Georgia, Kekelia said it was not “straightforward” that Iran was behind the placing of an explosive device on the car of a local staff member of the Israeli embassy, and did not rule out the possibility that Russia was behind it in order to torpedo improving ties between Georgia and Israel. The explosive device was neutralized by the police.
“We don’t rule out any provocative action from Russia anywhere in the world,” he said, adding – in reference to his country’s 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia – that “no one thought they would invade and occupy a sovereign country.”
“They do everything to prevent Georgia from having good friends, whether with Israel, the EU, Ukraine or the Baltic countries” he said of Moscow.
Israel – at Russia’s insistence – froze arms sales to Georgia in 2008 after Russia charged that it was arming the Georgian military.
Even with that snag, Israel and Georgia had very good relations during the last decade, but those ties deteriorated considerably when two Israeli businessmen – Roni Fuchs and Ze’ev Frenkel – were arrested in December 2010, and jailed in April 2011 on charges of bribery.
In December, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilii stepped in and pardoned the two, who returned immediately to Israel. Since then the ties have swiftly improved with a number of Georgian ministers having visited here over the last four months, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman scheduled to go there before September.
Asked for his thoughts about a recent report alleging that Israel had gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, which separates Iran from Georgia, to assist in a possible attack on Iran, Kekelia shook his head and said “it did not make sense.”
Beyond the fact that there are several million Azeris in Iran, Kekelia said it was unlikely that Baku would want to spoil its relationship with its southern neighbor for Israel. Such a move, he said, would “create a bomb” in the region where there is a simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and strained relations between a numbers of other neighboring countries.
“Israeli aircraft would mess up the situation,” said the US-educated ambassador.
As to whether Georgia itself might consider letting Israel use airbases in its territory – Tbilisi is just 880 km. from Tehran – Kekelia said it was “not realistic to speak about this.”
First of all, he said, following the war with Russia it would not be wise to let a foreign military into the country because domestically it might be seen as a betrayal of the principle of keeping Georgia free of foreign forces. In addition, it may be perceived as an act against Moscow.
Secondly, he said, Georgia does have diplomatic ties with Iran, so “openly providing your soil to attack a country that is seen as your friend is very difficult.”
And thirdly, he said, it would not make sense to ask Georgia to provide airbases, since both Azerbaijan and Armenia are closer to Iran.
Kekelia, an economist who came to Israel from a top position in the Georgian finance ministry, rather than the foreign ministry, said he was picked for his job as ambassador to Israel largely because he was seen as someone who could tap into the economic potential between the two countries.
Currently there is only some $30 million a year in trade between Georgia and Israel, compared to $70 million before the 2008 war with Russia.
One of the most promising bilateral areas, he said, was tourism, as Israelis – both backpackers and business people – are discovering Georgia, a nation he boasted has nine different climatic zones, is three times the size of Israel and has the highest mountains – and some of the finest wines – in Europe.
Last year some 26,000 Israelis went to Georgia, a number he hopes will double this year. He also said that it is not unreasonable to think that 50,000 Georgian tourists could visit Israel each year, something he said would be more likely if Israel waived its visa requirements for Georgians, as it has done for Russians and Ukrainians.
This is something currently being discussed between the two countries.