ASTANA – Kazakhstan and Israel are united by some common roots and common challenges, Deputy Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Zvi Rav-Ner said during his March 10 – 11 visit to Astana, but it is time for them to create more concrete connections.
In town to meet with his counterparts here, Rav-Ner also addressed Kazakhstan’s Institute of Diplomacy, touching on some issues that connect the two countries. He had two fundamental pieces of advice for the diplomatic hopefuls – focus on your people, and work multilaterally. “[T]hey really, as diplomats, have to think and care about the good of their country,” the deputy director general, who heads the Eurasia Division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview in Astana on March 11. “Because leaders change, parliaments change, but the country doesn’t and the people don’t. … And the country is the people.”
The other message was multilateralism – so many issues have become regional and international these days, and much diplomatic work is now being done through the United Nations, regional associations and special agencies, Rav-Ner said. Though the UN isn’t perfect, it is still an invaluable institution, he said. “Therefore – I wasn’t thinking about it, but when I met them, they were striving, upcoming new graduates of this country … I felt that I had to tell them that diplomacy is not just a bilateral business. Growingly, it is a matter of multilateralism.”
Kazakhstan is acting on the reality of regional and global integration, finding its place in the world through initiating the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA) – which, Rav-Ner notes, Israel was among the first to support – the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which Israel’s chief rabbis are consistently involved in, and other platforms.
The congress of religious leaders is useful, Rav-Ner said. “First of all, we don’t have many forums of this sort. … [H]ow many conferences of this kind do we have, where we have Christians, Jews and Muslims, under the auspices, of course, of a Muslim country? Not many.”
“For us, participation in CICA and these forums provides an opportunity to communicate informally with representatives of countries with whom we don’t have diplomatic relations; for instance, some Arab countries and others, like Pakistan, like Afghanistan. These are rare opportunities to communicate informally and we’d like to thank Kazakhstan for creating these opportunities for us,” said Eurasia Department Counsellor Michael Brodsky in the same interview.
The bilateral relationship with Kazakhstan is also very important to Israel, Rav-Ner said.
“Especially because we are having a conflict with part of the Arab-Muslim world in our area, we do appreciate very much Kazakhstan, as well as other countries of this nature in this region. They are very important to us, because here we have relations with Muslim countries that are a bit different – if not to say completely different – from what we are used to in our region,” he said. Kazakhstan has a very tolerant, accepting, peaceful society, Rav-Ner said. “I wish we had these kinds of attitudes and convictions and ideologies in our region.”
Israel and Kazakhstan also share security concerns, Rav-Ner noted. “I think we share the same concern with Kazakhstan and with some other countries in this region about the rise of militant Islam. It’s a grave concern for them and a grave concern for us.” The two countries discussed the issue a lot over his visit, he said, and while he said Israel should not be directly involved in Central Asia’s security issues and there is no concrete cooperation on terrorism or security problems, they are topics of discussion.
The importance of the relationship is demonstrated by high-level political exchanges over the years by heads of state, ministers, lawmakers and diplomats. And while political consultations don’t necessarily lead to clear and immediate outcomes, they are important, Rav-Ner said.
“Sometimes you may consider ‘political talks’ just talks. However, they are important, because you compare notes. You do try to understand each other – what is of major concern for this country here, what is of major concern for us. … . It’s sometimes invisible, it’s untouchable, in a way, but it’s there. That sets the tune.”
Emotional and historical connections between nations shouldn’t be underestimated, Rav-Ner said. “Part of relations is also history. … for instance, Kazakhstan hosted at least 100,000 Jews during the second World War, during the Holocaust, here. Refugees, Jewish refugees, from Eastern Europe, from Poland, from Russia itself, during the war found a very hospitable environment here in Kazakhstan during the Second World War,” he said – noting that some other countries in the region also provided refuge. Though it happened 70 years ago, “it very much sets the atmosphere, the political atmosphere today …” Rav-Ner said. “[W]e do owe and we do remember that it happened here, and therefore our basic attitude toward this country and these people is positive.”
Though warm, the relationship is not what it could be, Rav-Ner admits. “We should be doing more, I have to admit. This is part of the target of our trip, trying to revitalise and activate and do more.” The economic potential of Kazakhstan is huge, he said. “We do think that we have not yet reached even the minimal economic opportunities that are in this country. We think we can do much, much more … there is room for partnership and joint initiatives.”
A key part of the relationship is energy – Israel buys more than $1 billion worth of Kazakhstan’s oil every year, Brodsky said. But as Kazakhstan diversifies its economy, there are other areas ripe for cooperation, particularly in advanced technologies.
So far, Brodsky said, the two main fields with the greatest potential for cooperation are agriculture and health. In the next few days, he pointed out, a contingent of hospital directors will travel to Israel for a seminar. In May, Ushkonyr farm, a project using Israel’s drip irrigation technology, will open near Almaty.
The farm may be a source of ongoing, expanded collaboration: with Kazakhstan in the process of creating its official development agency, Israel has offered the use of the farm as a KazAID training centre for agriculture specialists from across Central Asia, Brodsky said. “Both countries would benefit from this and also other countries in the region would benefit from it.” Israel has also offered to share its development aid experience, he said.
In water, another challenge for both countries, Israel and Kazakhstan signed an agreement last August on cooperating in water management and upgrading the water system in Kazakhstan. “It still remains to be seen how this agreement will be implemented, but in the meantime there is an agreement in place on cooperation on a very large scale in Kazakhstan,” Brodsky said.
Kazakhstan and Central Asia, while not Israel’s top priority, are important to the country, historically, emotionally and politically, Rav-Ner said. And while Israel and Kazakhstan are still not connected by a direct flight – which the officials would like to see changed – other Central Asian and Caucasian countries are. “Therefore, we have great interest in these countries. They are friendly countries, politically, economically and otherwise. Even though, as I admitted, we have not done enough – in this respect, it also takes two to tango: they also can do more … I urge them to do more and we urge ourselves to do more. This is also our task – to convince our people to come and invest, to do business here.”