Georgia-Israel Relations

Renewal of the Georgian-Israeli Partnership

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A Georgian delegation led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigol Vashadze paid an official visit to Israel at the end of February. In talks with top-level Israeli officials, the Georgian delegation explored prospects for strengthening bilateral cooperation, especially in the sphere of trade and economy. Talks also touched on the possibility of launching negotiations on free trade and visa-free travel agreements between the two countries.

The official visit marked a thawing of diplomatic relations between Georgia and Israel. The Georgia-Israel relationship had become strained in the lead-up to the August 2008 war and was ruptured in the aftermath of the war and other subsequent events.

For Tbilisi, the most painful break with Israel was its termination of military cooperation just months before the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008. The timing of that decision on the part of Israel adversely affected Georgia’s defense capability. Israel had for years supplied Georgia with unmanned spy planes, as well as light weapons and anti-aircraft missile systems, and had assisted in modernization of Georgian military aircraft and capacity. Israeli instructors also had been active in the training of Georgian military. Israel’s military support to Georgia was believed to have been a counter response to Russia’s arming of Israel’s enemies – Iran and Syria.

According to Israeli media reports, the decision of Israel to stop its military cooperation with Georgia was made under pressure from Russia. That reportedly happened in April 2008, after a Russian fighter jet downed an Israeli-made drone in Georgia’s occupied territory of Abkhazia.

While Georgian Foreign Minister Vashadze and the Georgian delegation were still in Israel, the notorious Wikileaks website dropped a diplomatic bombshell in the form of leaked emails from the U.S.-based private global intelligence company Stratfor. One explosive email message, sent in February 2009, indicated that Israel had supplied Russia with codes to hack into the unmanned aerial vehicles of Georgia before the August 2008 war. In return, Russia allegedly gave Israel the codes for Russia’s state-of-the-art TOR-M1 anti-aircraft system stationed in Iran.

A statement of the Georgian President on 3 March generated even greater interest in the sensational information released by Wikileaks. In his speech at the presentation of the Georgian artillery system President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke about national military production and alluded to the indecency of arms suppliers. The President noted that, when weapons are produced locally, “you no longer depend on others who may cheat you somewhere, disclose information to others or refuse [to sell weapons] at a decisive moment.”

That the August war had an effect on Georgian-Israeli relations was confirmed by the Ambassador of Israel to Georgia, Yitzhak Gerber, in an interview he gave to Russian news agency Regnum this past January. According to Ambassador Gerber, the war in August 2008 not only had an impact on the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus region, but it affected the relationship between Israel and Georgia as well.

In April 2011, the Georgian-Israeli relationship was tested when the Israeli Global CST security firm, which had trained Georgian military prior to the August war, sent a delegation to Sokhumi in occupied Abkhazia. The delegation – former high-level military officials of Israel – conducted negotiations on economic cooperation with the de facto leadership of the self-declared Abkhaz republic.

Israeli Ambassador Gerber was forced to explain the Global CST visit to the Georgian Foreign Ministry. Gerber insisted that Israel does not recognize Abkhazia as an independent state and had no intention of selling weapons to Sokhumi. He added that the state of Israel

had nothing to do with that visit of “private business representatives.” Gerber’s explanation proved satisfactory for official Tbilisi.

That visit of former Israeli military officers to Abkhazia followed on the heels of the well-publicized arrest of Israeli businessman Ron Fuchs and Ze’ev Frenkiel in Georgia, but was apparently an unrelated event. According to high officials of the Sukhumi regime, preparations for the Global CST visit started in the summer of 2010, before the two Israeli businessmen were detained in Batumi.

The Fuchs and Frenkiel case was the most high-profile incident in the Israeli-Georgian relationship. The detention of the businessmen by Georgian law enforcement in October 2010 caused an uproar in Israel.

A Georgian court subsequently found Fuchs and Frenkiel guilty of attempting to bribe a high Georgian official in return for the official’s assistance in obtaining a USD 100-million arbitration award that Georgia had been ordered to pay the company of one of the businessmen. Neither the Georgian nor the Israeli leadership ever acknowledged officially any deterioration in relations between the two countries caused by the arrest of the businessmen. However, planned visits of Georgian delegations to Israel were postponed for an indefinite time and official contacts between the countries were actually severed.

In April 2011, shortly before the Global CST visit to Sokhumi, Georgia found itself embroiled in another Israeli-related legal dispute: Elbit Systems Ltd., the Israeli defense manufacturer, filed a lawsuit with the High Court of Justice in the United Kingdom, demanding that Georgia pay USD 100 million in arrears. Elbit Systems claimed it was owned that amount for unmanned aerial vehicles and other equipment it had supplied to Georgia. Official Tbilisi denied its indebtedness for quite a long time.

Apart from those incidents and disputes, the falling-out between the two countries took on a global dimension. Israel decided it needed the support of Moscow to respond to external challenges. In the eyes of Israel, the status of the United States as its unconditional ally and key guarantor of security had significantly weakened.

In the 2006 elections, the Democrats gained control of both houses of the U.S. Congress. That served to diminish the influence of Bush Administration neo-conservatives who advocated for a strict policy in the Middle East. After the 2006 elections, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped down and was replaced by Robert Gates, who favored a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear problem of Iran. The Administration of President George W. Bush tried to persuade Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian issue and to start negotiations with Palestine and Syria. Washington called on Israel to refrain from military response to Iran’s threat.

With the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House in January 2009, the United States increased pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue. Obama declared achievement of an Israel-Palestine peace agreement as one of the new Administration’s top foreign policy priorities. Several rounds of talks were held between the two sides with the mediation of Washington. President Obama believed the ultimate goal of those negotiations should be creation of an independent state of Palestine – even more so, within the 1967 borders. Any such agreement was categorically unacceptable for Israel.

The Israeli elections held in the spring of 2009 saw the staunchly nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) emerge as the third largest political party in the Knesset. That political party relies mainly on the support of Israeli citizens who emigrated from the Soviet Union. In his coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Lieberman had immigrated to Israel from Soviet Moldova in the late 1970s along with his family. As Israeli Foreign Minister, Lieberman started deepening ties with Russia.

The factor of repatriates has played an important role in both Israel-Georgia and Russia-Georgia relations. From seventy-to-eighty-thousand repatriates from Georgia and their progenies live in Israel today. The Georgian Diaspora in Israel maintains close cultural and economic links with our country. Georgian Jews, at various times, have been represented in the Knesset as well as in the executive branch and local government. They also are prominent in scientific and business spheres. Their prominence helps to maintain the popularity of Georgia among Israeli social and political circles.

At the same time, the representation of more than a million post-Soviet repatriates in Israel plays into the hands of Russia. That segment of the Israeli population is entrenched in the Russian-language information space. That entrenchment provides Moscow with a lever to control public opinion inside the country, which affects domestic as well as external politics of Israel.

In June 2009, Avigdor Lieberman paid his first official visit to Moscow. He called the Kremlin a key partner and expressed hope that relations with Russia would rise to a new level. By that time, though, Israel had numerous issues with Moscow because of Russia’s political support of Hamas, as well as its sale of modern weaponry to Iran and Syria.

Israel advanced a “strategic dialogue” with Moscow in the hope of deterring Russia’s continued sale of arms and political support to Israel’s enemies. In return, Israel pledged to stop supplying arms to Georgia. In 2009, Avigdor Lieberman identified as one of the topics of that strategic dialogue the accommodation of each other’s interests in containing arms exports in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

In February 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu denied Russian media reports about Israeli arms supplies to Georgia. Concerning the supply of arms, Netanyahu said Israel considered the concerns of all parties and expected reciprocity from Russia.

Israel initiated its military cooperation with Russia in May 2011, when the first batch of Israeli drones was delivered to Moscow. Israel handed its drone production technology over to Moscow too.

The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has made the security issue even more urgent for Israel. Israel fears that, unless Iran’s nuclear ambitions are immediately halted, Iran will inevitably build an atomic bomb, at which point it will be too late to contain the threat. If sanctions fail to bring about the desired results, Israel is prepared to launch a military operation, even without support of the United States or the West. Washington has made it clear that it will not permit Iran to build a nuclear weapon. At this stage, though, the White House deems military intervention premature – a position which displeases Israel, according to Western media.

Israel could not have been happy either about Georgia’s closer ties with Iran. In 2010, Georgia and Iran reciprocally abolished visa requirements and stepped up cooperation in the spheres of economy and tourism. Owing to those negotiations, Tbilisi secured Iran’s support of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Even though Israeli-Russian cooperation is unpleasant for Georgia, Israel considers its cooperation with Russia to be of vital importance to its national security. Israel faces an increasing threat not only from Iran, but also from neighboring Syria, which is a route used to funnel weapons to Hezbollah terrorists. The burgeoning civil war in Syria further intensifies the threat to Israel.

Despite repeated appeals by Israel, Moscow continues to supply Syria with arms. Israeli media report that Russia, in November 2011, provided Syria with the “Bastion” coastal defense system equipped with Yakhont anti-ship missiles. Following that move, Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his hope that Moscow, at least now, would take into account Israel’s concern about such issues as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

It seems that Israel has failed to attain the goal for which it had sacrificed military cooperation with Georgia. Russian weapons still reach Israel’s enemies. The Kremlin seems not to value much the agreement it reached with Israel. Russia evidently fears Arab Spring more than it values Israel. Moscow continues shoring up Bashar al-Assad’s regime by means of diplomatic and military assistance.

Under such circumstances, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Israel could resume security cooperation with Georgia in some format. Israel might conceivably want to use that issue again as a lever to pressure Moscow.

A military operation against Iran, which could draw in the United States and other Western countries, represents a certain threat to Georgia. If that were to happen, the attention of the West toward post-Soviet countries would slacken. That could only serve to disengage the Kremlin’s hands for new adventures. Even more, as Russian sources assert, Moscow would not sit idly twiddling its thumbs if a military operation were launched against Iran. Russia is ready to “lay a corridor” through Georgia by military means. Such a scenario – a direct corridor between Russia and Iran – certainly has to be disadvantageous for Israel.

From the point of view of Israel’s security interests, the South Caucasus region has recently acquired a special importance. During a meeting with Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, Israeli President Shimon Peres thanked the Georgian side for thwarting the attempted bombing of Israeli embassy personnel in Tbilisi on 13 February. Israel linked that attempt to terrorist acts committed against Israeli diplomats in other countries and laid complete responsibility on Iran.

The foiled terrorist act has showed that Georgia may, nolens volens, be drawn into a war among security services of Iran and Israel. That threat seems especially real in light of recent events in neighboring Azerbaijan. In January, two Azerbaijani citizens were detained in Baku for allegedly planning a terrorist act against Israeli citizens on instructions from Iranian security service. Iran, for its part, accuses Baku of collaborating with Israeli special services working within the territory of Iran.

Given the real threat of war, Israel needs to reinforce its positions in the South Caucasus. At the same time, Tbilisi has an interest in resolving any “disputable” issue with Israel as soon as possible. That was evident on 2 December 2011, when the Georgian President pardoned Ron Fuchs and Ze’ev Frenkiel. On the same day, it was disclosed that the dispute between Fuchs’ company and the Georgian government had been settled with Tbilisi agreeing to pay the aggrieved company USD 30 million, instead of USD 100 million.

On 29 December 2011, yet another dispute was settled between the Georgian and Israeli sides. Elbit Systems Ltd., which had demanded USD 100 million in arrears, agreed to accept USD 35 million in payment and to take back certain equipment it had supplied to Georgia.

Along with cultural ties, the Georgian and Israeli geopolitical situation and historic experience provide grounds for rapprochement.

Both countries are endangered by powerful external threats. They both must rely largely on themselves. Both also have experienced several military conflicts in recent times.

Israel went through its state-building process just several decades ago, after quite a lengthy interruption. Georgia is going through that process now.

For Israel, overcoming a socialist legacy is, to some extent, topical as well – after several decades of being governed by socialists, Israel installed a right-wing coalition for the first time in 1996.

Most beneficial for Georgia would be to learn from Israel’s experience of building a state, of ensuring security amid hostile surroundings, and of successfully developing a market economy despite constant threat. At the same time, the two countries differ significantly in terms of their Diasporas. Jewish Diaspora around the world is far more numerous and influential. It is largely owing to that Diaspora that Israel has garnered guarantees of security from the West.

Georgia cannot expect Western support to the same degree as Israel. Even in the case of Israel, Western support is neither unconditional nor unwavering. However, Israel has already achieved a certain level of strength, in terms of its security, popular consolidation, steadfastness, which Georgia currently lacks.

Apart from cooperation on security issues, Georgia is interested in developing economic ties with Israel. In 2010, direct foreign investments from Israel totaled an estimated USD 8 million. That comprised a little less than one percent of all direct foreign investments to Georgia that year. Improvement of relations between the two countries would likely translate into increased Israeli investment and tourism.

One of the issues which Tbilisi hopes that Israel will help resolve is the return to Georgia of historical Monastery of the Cross (Jvari monastery), which is located in Jerusalem. That initiative was recently unveiled by the President of Georgia.

The key factor for Israel in its relationship with Georgia and other countries in the region is security. It is clearly in Israel’s interest to prevent the South Caucasus from turning into a foothold for forces hostile to Israel. That is especially the case given Israel’s deteriorating relations with Turkey.

Today, after a long pause, Israel is expressing its readiness to deepen economic and political ties with Georgia. Tbilisi must develop that relationship step-by-step, on a pragmatic and mutually beneficial basis and without excessive expectations or exaggerated optimism.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 91, published 12 March 2012.

 

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