What Does Israel’s Multi-Vector Foray into the Caucasus Mean?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenia’s hostile relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, compounded by tense relations between Russia and Georgia, render the Caucasus a very explosive powder keg. How would the injection of the Israeli factor affect the region? This is the question many pundits are mulling.

Israel’s Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanebi visited Yerevan, met with Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian to sign bilateral economic cooperation agreements, declaring that he is visiting Armenia to bring about a “breakthrough.”

During the same period in July, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili visited Israel and at a joint press conference with his counterpart, Benyamin Netanyahu, announced that bilateral relations “are developing very rapidly and that the exchange of high-level visits gives additional impetus to their cooperation.”

Most significantly Israel is on the radar of the Russian Foreign Ministry as Sergey Lavrov stated that in solving the problem of the Syrian war, “Israel’s security interests will be taken into consideration.”

As we can see, suddenly Israel is prominent in the Caucasus, mostly because that country has been emerging from its isolation after focusing on the Palestinian issue so intently that it has been practically wiped from every party’s agenda.

There is an unofficial motto at the US State Department; any country which claims to be a friend of America cannot qualify for that status unless it first becomes a friend of Israel.

That policy is also in force domestically. Indeed, when former Republican Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan stated in his The Conservative publication that the US interests should be placed before those of Israel, he effectively disappeared from TV screens where he once was a popular political analyst.

Israel has all the common attributes which could technically make it a good ally for Armenia but political expediency has taken over to keep the two nations distant.

Israel sees the Nagorno Karabakh problem as to be resolved within Azerbaijan’s terms, meaning territorial integrity supersedes the right to self-determination of the indigenous people. Israel’s extreme right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, reiterated that policy recently.

Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, did not fare any better when he buttered up Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, whose “pain” he shares as the party which has lost part of its land.

As a country, many of whose citizens’ ancestors were victims of mass extermination, one would assume that Israel must be morally compelled to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Although the official policy is in denial mode, there are powerful voices in academia and the parliament in favor of recognition. The Caucasus Chronicles cites interesting developments in this direction: “While Israeli leftists, particularly the late Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, have long sympathized with Armenians, the centrist and right wing politicians have been more distant. That has been changing somewhat. Since 2013, the speaker of the Knesset has been Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, who supports recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Since 2015, Ze’ev Elkin, who also supported the Armenian issues in the Knesset, has emerged as a key figure in the Netanyahu cabinet. In April 2015, Likud delegated member Anat Berko to attend events marking the Genocide centenary in Yerevan. And this year, a controversial right-wing figure, Avigdor Eskin, who had previously been sympathetic to Azerbaijan, made a surprise visit to Nagorno Karabakh.”

Do all these developments indicate that Israel is ready to recognize the Armenian Genocide? Hardly, as the issue has been so politicized that at best, it can become a political thermometer to gauge Turkish-Israeli relations. Once Israel recognizes the Genocide, it will give away a political asset which can be used against Turkey, every time a concession is expected from Ankara.

In addition, all these developments prove to be temporary trends, as Israel is planning to export its newly found gas supplies to Europe through Turkey.

To demonstrate the ironic and cynical nature of politics it suffices to mention an incident that took place in April 2016, when Azerbaijan, using Harop suicide drones and Spike anti-tank missiles, took back some strategic positions from Artsakh. During that flare up Knesset’s deputy Speaker Tali Ploskov was visiting Armenia, leading a delegation. She “strongly condemned the Azeri aggression” and called for the restoration of a ceasefire.

President Aliyev boasts that Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are like an iceberg; 90 percent is submerged down below. But part of it surfaced recently when the Israeli paper Haaretz reported that Ilham Aliyev has bought a magnificent villa in Haifa for $6 million. Also, the Aliyev family has invested $600 million in the Israeli stock market.

When Israel was criticized for selling arms to Azerbaijan, it was reported that the government was ready to sell the same arms to Armenia.

When Armenia’s strategic ally Russia is in the same position of arming two warring parties, Armenians can scarcely protest against Israel for doing the same.

In the bilateral relations between our two countries, local politics also reveal a lot. After World War I, the Armenian population in Jerusalem was 25,000 strong. In subsequent decades, it stabilized at 15,000. Today, that number has dwindled to 1,500. This is a dramatic drop which must have some objective reasons behind.

Also, the Armenian Patriarchate’s real estate holdings are at risk. The Times of Israel reported recently that “the Greek Orthodox Church has broken its decades-long practice of leasing land to Israelis and has now sold it, because it can no longer withstand massive pressure from Israeli authorities to hand over its real estate.”

In the scandal of the land deal, the Greek Patriarch has been forced out, to be replaced with a new one. The same pressure is being applied on the Armenian Patriarchate. Even the smartest members of the clergy would eventually succumb to those pressures. God only knows how many pieces of real estate have already been lost.

Obviously, none of the above problems have been discussed by Armenia and Israel. The “breakthrough” marks a new beginning between the two countries whose trade is at the meager mark of $8.5 million currently.

Israel’s foray into the region is motivated by several factors. The US has been trying to cast a wedge between Russia and its allies in the region. If Armenia finds enough incentives in the new developments, it may anchor its complementary policy on solid ground. Armenia’s participation in NATO military exercises in Georgia has already become an irritant in relations between Moscow and Yerevan.

The other factor is Armenia’s heavy reliance on trade with Iran. Israel has already pitted Baku against Tehran. By developing bilateral trade with Armenia, especially in the realm of information technologies, that may undermine Armenia’s reliance on Tehran, which is a bonus for Israel.

Despite all the problems with Israel, Armenia needs to pursue realpolitik by winning the good graces of Washington. And as we have seen, that may not happen if it bypasses Israel.

Israel’s olive branch is a one-time opportunity for Armenia to reach out to the West. After all, Washington forced policy change to the great nation of India, as the world witnessed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel. Even Saudi Arabia has discovered that its survival is conditioned by Israel’s friendship. Political realism will guide Armenia to bite the bullet and reach out to the extended hand.