Israel & the South Caucasus

To ordinary observers, the South Caucasus region might not appear high in Israel’s foreign policy agenda. First, the geographic distance matters as none of the three states, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, border on Israel itself. Moreover, the region is also a hotbed of ethnic fighting with three ongoing separatist conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh further complicating political stability. However, the South Caucasus’ strategic location, which lies between Central Asia and eastern Europe, and connects Russia with the Middle East, has drawn a number of regional players to seek larger influence on the territory. Those regional players are usually Turkey, Russia and the European Union and this, by virtue of logic, would negate any potential influence Israel could have in the region.

Over the past year, Israel has intensified its foreign policy moves towards each of the South Caucasian states. Each country is interesting to Israel for specific reasons. For example, with Georgia, Israel had had extensive military contacts when the Georgian army was largely supplied with specific Israeli military technologies before 2008. However, the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 stopped Israeli exports as Russia was particularly angry at having a small neighbor with much-advanced military capabilities.

Beyond military ties, Georgia is also interesting for Israel from the economic point of view: Israeli investments play an important role in Georgia’s economy. Moreover, due to its geopolitically important location, Georgia has several large ports on its Black Sea shore which could easily be used for commercial and military purposes.

With Armenia, Israeli’s relations have been somewhat distant over the past decade or so. This largely conditioned Israel’s rather intensive ties with Yerevan's two biggest geopolitical rivals, Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, recently, there was a certain shift in the bilateral relations when a senior Israeli official visited Yerevan. Tsachi Hanegbi, Israel's Minister for Regional Cooperation, visited Armenia on July 25-26 for talks with senior Armenian officials. Hanegbi has been a key figure in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and has held various ministerial positions for the past two decades. Hanegbi said that his visit was intended as a step forward in relations to make Armenia-Israeli “friendship mutually beneficial in many fields.” What is more important it was the first visit by a senior Israeli official to Armenia since 2012.

One of the major bones of contention between Armenia and Israel has been Israeli-supplied arms to Azerbaijan. The supplies played an important role in last year's “April war” between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After Azerbaijan took several frontline posts in a surprise attack on April 2, 2016, Armenian forces undertook a counteroffensive. But Israeli-supplied Harop suicide drones and Spike anti-tank missiles helped Azerbaijani forces thwart that counterattack.

This brings us to Israel-Azerbaijani relations. In late 2016, reports were circulated that Baku was planning to buy Israeli “Iron Dom” capabilities to better counter potential Armenian attacks. Beyond those military ties, Azerbaijan has also been important to Israel for its large natural resources and how the country could potentially, in case of need, become Israel’s major oil-supplier.

Thus, Israel’s relations with each of the three South Caucasian states depends on specific economic and military interests. Each of the states has different relations with larger neighbors such as Russia or Turkey, and the Israeli diplomacy has to navigate in this difficult political arena, where a misstep could deteriorate Israel’s ties with Turkey or Russia.

However, beyond that there could also be another incentive as to why Israel’s diplomacy has become more active over the past year or so in regards to the South Caucasus. And the reason for this is Iran.

Historically, from Achaemenids to the Sasanians and the 17th-18th centuries, Iran, under various dynasties, aspired to achieve a major role in the South Caucasus. When, after the Cold War, sanctions were placed against Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran was constrained in expanding its role in the above-mentioned region.

One might think that Iran’s recent economic and diplomatic successes with regards to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia could have driven Israel’s quite diversified foreign policy towards each of the South Caucasus states.

Emil Avdaliani

30 November 2017 18:14