Long known as the “Great Game” – the race for control of Central Asia – has invariably focused on the epic battle of the Western powers with Russia. A recent German Marshall Fund paper recommends not forgetting about Israel, which might come as a bit of a surprise. While the author – Marlène Laruelle, a director of GMF’s Central Asia Program, and a research professor of International Affairs at George Washington University – isn’t necessarily suggesting that Israel will become a major player in the region, she makes a strong case that the mutual benefits of a strategic alliances are there and how relations develop bears watching.

Central Asia would seem to be a much more welcoming environment for Israel than many other areas of the world. The countries have cracked down hard on militant forms of Islam (obviously with well-documented repercussions even for milder forms); they have resisted attempts by Iran over the years to adopt anti-Israel standpoints at groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and the levels of anti-semitism/anti-Israel attitudes among the general public are far below those in the rest of the Muslim world.

Israel is also in need of new partners, as some of the old, more-or-less friendly regimes have now crashed and burned in the wake of the Arab Spring. The new rulers are busy re-making the relationships that Israel had grown comfortable with, as Laruelle writes: “The old alliance with Turkey has been seriously undermined, and the strengthening of the new partnership between Egypt and Turkey — and potentially between Egypt and Iran — dramatically changed the situation for Israel.” The election of Islamists (albeit mainly moderate so far) also has Tel Aviv worried about the future.

According to Laruelle:

Under these circumstances, it is in Israel’s interest to seek new allies in the Muslim world, but these allies are becoming scarce. The Central Asian states and Azerbaijan are strong candidates for this status. They would provide Israel with new international visibility that is detached from the Middle East conflict, focused instead on clearly understood economic and energy interests. This alliance would value secular trends in the Muslim world and Israel’s image as a regional power, which is strong thanks to its technical expertise and economic dynamism, rather than as a country at war. The negative side for Israel is that the alliance requires siding — once again — with authoritarian regimes whose legitimacy will likely be challenged in coming years.

If I have any complaint about the paper, it’s that last sentence. Laruelle spends much of her time discussing the history of relations and the mutual benefits of closer ties, and then that “negative side” is somewhat tagged on at the end without any exploration of the topic. I’m no expert on Israeli domestic opinion, but I’m assuming that cozying up to countries of the likes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan might at least be cause for debate in Israel – and not just because their “legitimacy will likely be challenged in coming years”, but because these are brutal, human-rights offenders.

Would a significant part of the Israeli public care about that, or would the simple fact that these would be new allies in the Muslim world, with a history of mercilessly crushing Islamist movements, overwhelm any other considerations? The author mentions “shared views of world order” between Israel and the nations of Central Asia. Really?

Laruelle also suggests that Tel Aviv’s “leading means of influence” would be person-to-person contacts, including those already established through Central Asian/Israeli oligarchs that apparently have the ear of the political elite in the region.

The so-called “king of diamonds” in Israel, Lev Leviev, is a native of Uzbekistan and is president of the World Congress of the Community of Bukharan Jews. He is personally acquainted with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and is an indispensable ally for anyone wanting to establish themselves in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has at its disposal several significant connections to the Israeli business and public affairs communities via the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and the founder and leader of the radical right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, who has been campaigning for stronger ties to Central Asia, particularly to Tashkent, since the 1990s.

Maybe it’s easier for countries like Israel if they make no pretenses to supporting democracy on the ground in such places (if that is the case). When the United States and other Western powers get in bed with Central Asians leaders, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty easy since many of these Western countries have democratization programs and support human-rights defenders and other activists. But I’ve never head of anything like that on the part of Israel, at least in Central and Eastern Europe, though the country has proudly been an island of democracy in a tough region. Maybe it’s a question of money and/or priorities closer to home, or just a lack of tradition of such programs (off the top of my head, I also can’t remember over the past 20 years any grassroots, democratization-type activities supported by the Italians, the Spanish, or the French, at least through grant programs).

So I’m left wondering whether this “negative side” is much of an obstacle to Israel using its well-connected oligarchs to forge meaningful alliances with some nasty regimes, or whether no one is Tel Aviv fears the backlash toward such relations that we’ve seen in the West in recent years. Maybe some of our readers is Israel can help out?

Photo of Kazakhstan’s PM Karim Massimov and Israeli President Shimon Peres attending a Kazakh-Israeli business forum, care of Kazakh government website.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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