In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, with its wide boulevards, mosques and modern cafes, it seems that international politics is not at all important and irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned. For a country that has ties to Iran, which is in dialogue with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, which recognized a Palestinian state as early as 1994 and whose citizens are mostly secular Muslims, the issue of a boycott of Israel does not seem to be part of the discourse at all.
On the contrary: next year, the Central Asian country, which has a population of 35 million, will mark 30 years of diplomatic relations with Israel, and has a Jewish community that some estimate has existed since the First Temple. Now, as part of the government’s desire to establish a Western-style state, and in the face of the country’s severe water shortage, Uzbekistan wants to strengthen relations with Israel.
Leading the move is President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who last month won the election by an overwhelming 80% and won another term. “When it comes to Israel, there is a ‘heart to heart’ diplomacy,” explains former Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev, who now serves as the deputy chairman of the local senate. According to him, he has a strong personal and diplomatic connection to Israel, a country he admires but has never visited. “We have one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, for more than 2,000 years, and it has contributed greatly to the development of the area,” says Spoiev. “I can not imagine Uzbek culture without the contribution of the Jewish community of Uzbekistan.”
Some believe that the Jewish community in Uzbekistan has developed since the days of the Babylonian exile, if not earlier. Historically, they have concentrated in Bukhara and Samarkand, which according to one tradition is the burial place of the prophet Daniel. In the more recent past, the years of World War II, Uzbekistan, which was part of the Soviet bloc, was a refuge for Jews from Eastern Europe who had fled the Nazis.
It is estimated that before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community in the country numbered about 250,000, but most of its people have since immigrated to Israel or immigrated to the United States. Today, the community numbers about 10,000 Jews, most of whom live in Tashkent. Spoyev argues that the remaining Jews played an important role in strengthening relations between Uzbekistan and Israel.
The openness to the Jewish state is part of Uzbekistan’s self-branding as the world center for liberal and enlightened Islam, at a time when fundamentalist Islam is strengthening in other countries around the world. “Uzbekistan is the heart of Islamic culture. All the achievements of Islamic thought have been created here,” says Spoib.
To establish Uzbekistan’s status in Muslim history, the government began building what would become the world’s largest center for the study of Islam. When the Center for Islamic Culture is completed, the complex where it will be located will also include the religious center in the Old City of Tashkent, which houses a museum displaying one of the oldest copies of the Koran, written on deer skin and dating to the seventh century.
When Reuven Rivlin was president of the State of Israel, he sent the Uzbeks a Hebrew translation of the Koran, written by his father, the Orientalist Yosef Yoel Rivlin. The book is displayed in a room next to the one where the ancient Koran is located. Spoyev says that this coexistence between Jews and Muslims is important to his country. “Islam is a religion that tends to peace and coexistence and respect for other religions,” he said.
Uzbekistan, a country without direct access to the sea, is in an area where a balance between conflicting geopolitical interests is a necessity. The ability of its diplomats to maintain relations with a large number of countries is part of the national ethos. Long before the Abrahamic Accords, which brought about normalization between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslim countries, such as Uzbekistan, established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. As part of its commitment to Israel, the Tashkent government has brought Israeli journalists to visit the country so they can learn first-hand about the place.
But it is not just history that brings about the strong relations between the two countries. The economy also plays an important role in Tashkent’s interest in Israel. “We want to bring more Israeli and Jewish businessmen to Uzbekistan, in order to increase investment opportunities, especially in the field of drip irrigation,” said Spoib.
Israel’s ambassador to Tashkent, Zehavit Ben Hillel, said Uzbekistan is “a leading country in Central Asia, so it is important to maintain good relations with it.” According to her, technology is an important means in this effort.
The main agricultural crop in Uzbekistan is cotton, and the government wanted to replace the old method of flooding the fields with drip irrigation, an area in which Israel excels. Ikramov Adkham Ilkhamovich, head of the Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Israel’s water management capability is one of the best in the world, and that its country has a keen interest in its water storage technologies, given its response to drought.
“In 2016, we knew very little about drip irrigation, but within five years we covered 3,000 square kilometers in drip irrigation,” said Ikramov, adding that the move led to an increase in output at all crops. . He added that “Israel has increased its crop eightfold thanks to drip irrigation, and we want to follow suit. Now we are starting to learn how to export fresh and dried fruit. Israel has experience in this as well,” he said.
According to Ikramov, Israel can benefit from the production of silk, leather and copper in its country, which also produces plastic and uranium. The volume of trade between the two countries is $ 40-45 million a year, but it can be greatly expanded, not only through agricultural technology, but also through tourism, education and medical initiatives.
“For us, Israel has always been an important country,” said Dilorom Fayzieva, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Uzbek parliament. According to her, the Knesset and the Uzbek parliament are also trying to strengthen ties between them. Earlier this year, former Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin was the first in his role to meet with Uzbek Senate Speaker Tanzila Norbaeva as the two spoke in zoom.
According to Spoyev, in order to better understand Uzbekistan’s balancing act in its foreign relations, one must take into account that the country does not have access to the sea and therefore it must maintain good relations with all its neighbors, especially when it comes to transport. “As Napoleon said, ‘If you want to understand the foreign policy of any country, you have to study its geography,'” he said.
The most convenient access to the sea for Uzbekistan is via Afghanistan or via Turkmenistan and Iran, and according to Spuyev, Tashkent maintains good relations with Tehran. “Iran is an important regional power, and our main trade routes with Europe and the Middle East pass through it.” In the same way, his country has held talks with the Taliban after the organization took over Afghanistan, although there are no official relations between the two countries. “The whole world is watching with caution what is happening in Afghanistan,” Spoyev said, adding that there is currently no intention to normalize relations, but continued dialogue is important. “I believe the whole international community appreciates the fact that Uzbekistan is a channel for dialogue with the rulers of Afghanistan.”
According to Spoyev, this communication channel allows Uzbekistan to help prevent a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country. He also opposes sanctions against the Taliban regime because they would harm the Afghan population. “People should not be punished. They are the ones who will suffer if there is a siege or a freeze on assets.”
He said it was an important step in preventing waves of refugees from Afghanistan and turning it into a terrorist shelter as it was before the United States military arrived in the country. “We must not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union, which withdrew from Afghanistan and forgot about it. The international community must continue to deal with it in order to prevent it from becoming the basis of al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
“The Taliban is a reality,” says Spoyev.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Spoyev says he feels that his country has an important role to play in maintaining dialogue between the parties. “Dialogue is always better than conflict and it addresses the declining level of trust in modern diplomacy,” said the Uzbek politician, explaining the central idea behind Uzbek diplomacy: “Everyone has the right to a peaceful life, prosperity and living together in this world. No one leaves the planet. “This is for someone else. All our neighbors come from God and we must appreciate them.”
Source: Maariv.co.il – תיירות by www.maariv.co.il.
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