From Tehran to Jerusalem, Uzbekistan bridges Israeli-Muslim divide

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: In this central Asian country where Jews have lived since the time of the Bible, Uzbek diplomates talk with Iran, the Taliban and Israel.

THE Khazrati Imam cathedral mosque in Tashkent, in the complex where one of the oldest copies of the Koran is housed. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
THE Khazrati Imam cathedral mosque in Tashkent, in the complex where one of the oldest copies of the Koran is housed.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

TASHKENT – In Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, with its wide boulevards, mosques and modern coffee shops, geopolitics almost seems irrelevant when it comes to Israel.

Here is a country, with ties to Iran, that is in conversation with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. A largely secular Muslim country, it has recognized Palestine as a state since 1994, but the topic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions doesn’t seem to be part of the conversation.

The Central Asian nation of 35 million is due to celebrate its 30th anniversary of formal diplomatic ties with Israel next year, and has a Jewish community that some speculate has been in existence since the time of King David.

As part of the government’s push toward Western-style democracy and with an eye to its struggles with water scarcity, Uzbekistan wants to strengthen its ties with the Jewish state.

It’s a drive that has been promoted by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who earlier this week secured a second term.

 Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev casts a ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, October 24, 2021. (credit: Uzbek Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS) Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev casts a ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, October 24, 2021. (credit: Uzbek Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

WHEN IT comes to Israel there is “heart-to-heart” diplomacy, explained former Uzbek foreign minister Sodiq Safoyev, who now is the first deputy chairman of the Senate.

He explained that he feels a strong personal and diplomatic connection to Israel, a country he admires but has never visited.

“We have one of the oldest Jewish communities that dates back more than 2,000 years,” and which made significant contributions “to the development of this region,” Safoyev said.

“I cannot imagine Uzbek culture without the contribution of the Jewish community of Uzbekistan,” he explained.

It’s believed that the Uzbekistan Jewish community dates back at least to the time of the Babylonian exile, if not before.

Historically, the Jews were centered in Bukhara and Samarkand, believed to be one of the burial site for the bones of the biblical prophet Daniel.

A former Soviet bloc country, Uzbekistan in modern times also hosted Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who fled the Nazis during World War II.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community was estimated to be as large as 250,000, but most of its members have since immigrated to Israel or the United States, leaving only some 10,000 Jews in the country, mostly in Tashkent.

Safoyev said that those Jews have played an important role in helping cement ties between Uzbekistan and Israel.

Its openness to the Jewish state is part of the country’s branding of itself as the global center of enlightened and liberal Islam, at a time when Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere is rising.

“Uzbekistan is the center of Islamic civilization. All the main achievements of Islamic thought were created here,” Safoyev said.

To cement the country’s historical place in Muslim history, the government is in the process of building what will be the largest center for Islamic research.

When the new Center for Islamic Civilization is completed, the complex will encompass the historic Hast-Imam complex which includes a museum that houses one of the oldest copies of the Koran, which is written on deerskin, and dates back possibly to the 7th century.

When Reuven Rivlin was president of Israel, he sent a Hebrew translation of the Koran written by his father to Uzbekistan, which is on display in that museum just one room away from the ancient Koran.

Safoyev said that coexistence between Jews and Muslims is important to Uzbekistan.

“Islam is inclined to peace and coexistence and respect for other religions,” he said.

In Uzbekistan, a landlocked country where balancing competing geopolitical interests is a diplomatic necessity, the ability of its diplomats to maintain ties with a wide range of countries is part of its national ethos.

Long before last year’s Abraham Accords allowed for the normalization of ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a number of Muslim countries, such as Uzbekistan, already had a history of formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

As part of its commitment to the Jewish state, the government brought a group of Israeli journalists to Uzbekistan last weekend at its own expense so they could learn firsthand about the country.

HISTORY IS not the only issue. The economy also plays a large role in Uzbekistan’s interest in Israel.

“We want to bring more Jewish and Israeli businesses to Uzbekistan, to enlarge the number of investment opportunities, particularly drip irrigation,” Safoyev said.

Ambassador to Uzbekistan Zehavit Ben Hillel said that “Uzbekistan is a leading country in Central Asia, so it is important to continue the good relations with this country.”

Technology has been a significant tool in that endeavor, she said.

Uzbekistan’s main crop was cotton, and there was an interest in replacing the old method of flooding the fields with drip irrigation, such as the kind that Israel excels at.

Ikramov Adkham Ilkhamovich, who chairs Uzbekistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that Israel’s water management was one of the best in the world, and its water-saving technologies are of great interest to his country given its battle with drought.

“In 2016 we knew little about drip irrigation. But in a five years’ time span we have covered 300,000 hectares with drip irrigation,” he said, adding that the move had increased productivity as well. This includes all crops, Ikramov added.

Next year, he said, Uzbekistan plans to cover 1.2 million hectares with drip irrigation.

Ikramov said Israel has increased its agriculture yield eightfold through drip irruption, and that his country wants to follow suit.

“Now we are at the beginning stage of learning how to export fresh and dried fruits,” and “we are interested in Israel’s experience in this area,” he said.

Israel, Ikramov said, can benefit from his country’s silk, leather and copper production. It also produces plastics and uranium.

Trade between the two countries stands at about $40 million-$45m., but this could be vastly expanded not just through hi-tech agriculture, but also through tourism, education and medical initiatives.

“Israel, for us, was always a very important country,” said Dilorom Fayzieva, who chairs the Uzbek legislature’s International Affairs Committee. The Knesset and the parliament are also looking to improve their ties, she said.

Earlier this year, former Knesset speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) held the first formal meeting of anyone in his position with the chairwoman of the Senate of Uzbekistan, Tanzila Norbaeva, when the two spoke over Zoom.

TO BEST understand the balancing act that Uzbekistan maintains in its foreign relations, Safoyev said, one has to look at the fact that the country is landlocked and must have good relations with all its neighbors, particularly when it comes to transport.

“As Napoleon said, ‘If you want to understand the foreign policy of any country, you should study its geography,” Safoyev said.

Both the Afghanistan corridor and the one that runs through Turkmenistan and Iran offer it the best route to the sea.

Uzbekistan maintains good relations with Tehran, he said.

‘Iran is an important regional power” and through its run “our main trade routes to Europe and Middle East,” he added.

In that same way, he said, his country has been in conversation with the Taliban since its takeover of Afghanistan during the summer, even though it has not established formal ties with its government.

“The whole world is watching closely what is going on in Afghanistan,” Safoyev said.

There is no immediate plan to normalize ties, but sustained dialogue is important, he added.

Safoyev said he believes that “the whole world community appreciates the fact that Uzbekistan is a channel of systematic dialogue with the current rulers of Afghanistan,” he explained.

This corridor of communication allows Uzbekistan to help prevent a humanitarian crisis in that country, Safoyev said, adding that he opposed sanctions against the Taliban that would harm the Afghani population.

“We should not punish people. It would be them who would suffer from any kind of a blockade or freezing of assets,” Safoyev said.

It’s an important step to prevent a wave of refugees from Afghanistan and to keep the country from becoming a haven for terrorists as it was in the past before the US forces were in the country.

“We should not repeat the mistakes of the former Soviet Union, which withdrew from Afghanistan and forgot about this country.

“The international community should stay engaged in the country to prevent” it from becoming bases for al-Qaeda and ISIS, he said.

“The Taliban is reality. It is a factor of political life in Afghanistan, and we have to build on it,” Safoyev said. The drive should be to reform the Taliban so that it is inclusive of minorities and women, he said, adding that it also must prevent terrorism. It is particularly important for the infrastructure projects in that country to continue.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Safoyev said, he feels that his country has an important role in maintaining dialogue with both parties.

“Dialogue is always better than conflict” and goes a long way to “addressing” what he referred to as the trust deficit in modern diplomacy, Safoyev said, adding that this idea was at the heart of his country’s diplomacy.

“Every human deserves to have a peaceful life, to have prosperity and to live together in this world,” Safoyev said.

No one is leaving this planet for another.

“All our neighbors come from God, and we should appreciate them,” he added.