From Tehran to Jerusalem, Uzbekistan bridges the divide between Israelis and Muslims

TASHKENT – In Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, with its wide boulevards, mosques and modern coffee shops, geopolitics almost seems irrelevant when it comes to Israel.

Here is a country, with ties to Iran, that is in conversation with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. A predominantly secular Muslim country, it has recognized Palestine as a state since 1994, but the topic of boycott, divestment and sanctions does not seem to be part of the conversation.

The Central Asian nation of 35 million will celebrate its 30th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations with Israel next year, and it has a Jewish community that some speculate has been around since the time of King David.

As part of the government’s push towards Western-style democracy and with a view to its struggles against water scarcity, Uzbekistan wants to strengthen its ties with the Jewish state.

It is an initiative that has been promoted by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who earlier this week won a second term.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev votes in a polling station during the presidential elections in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on October 24, 2021 (Credit: Uzbekistan Presidential Press Service / Handout via REUTERS).

WHEN it comes to Israel, there is “heart-to-heart” diplomacy, explained former Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev, who is now the first vice president of the Senate.

He explained that he feels a strong personal and diplomatic connection with Israel, a country that he admires but has never visited.

“We have one of the oldest Jewish communities dating back more than 2,000 years” and that made significant contributions “to the development of this region,” Safoyev said.

“I cannot imagine Uzbek culture without the contribution of the Uzbek Jewish community,” he explained.

The Jewish community in Uzbekistan is believed to date back at least to the time of the Babylonian exile, if not earlier.

Historically, Jews were concentrated in Bukhara and Samarkand, which is believed to be one of the burial sites for the bones of the Biblical prophet Daniel.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet bloc country in modern times, also hosted Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who fled the Nazis during World War II.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community was estimated to be as large as 250,000, but most of its members have since emigrated to Israel or the United States, leaving only about 10,000 Jews in the country, most in Tashkent. .

Safoyev said those Jews have played an important role in helping cement ties between Uzbekistan and Israel.

Its openness to the Jewish state is part of the country’s brand of itself as the global center of liberal and enlightened Islam, at a time when Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere is on the rise.

“Uzbekistan is the center of Islamic civilization. All the major achievements of Islamic thought were created here, ”Safoyev said.

To cement the country’s historic place in Muslim history, the government is in the process of building what will be the largest Islamic research center.

When the new Center for Islamic Civilization is completed, the complex will encompass the historic Hast-Imam complex, which includes a museum that houses one of the oldest copies of the Quran, which is written on deerskin and possibly dating back to the 7th century. .

When Reuven Rivlin was president of Israel, he sent a Hebrew translation of the Qur’an written by his father to Uzbekistan, which is displayed in that museum just one room from the ancient Qur’an.

Safoyev said that the coexistence between Jews and Muslims is important for Uzbekistan.

“Islam is inclined towards peace and coexistence and respect for other religions,” he said.

In Uzbekistan, a landlocked country where balancing competing geopolitical interests is a diplomatic necessity, the ability of its diplomats to maintain ties with a wide range of countries is part of its national spirit.

Long before last year’s Abraham Accords allowed for the normalization of ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, several Muslim countries, such as Uzbekistan, already had a history of formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

As part of its commitment to the Jewish state, the government brought a group of Israeli journalists to Uzbekistan last weekend at their expense so they could learn first-hand about the country.

THE HISTORY is not the only problem. The economy also plays an important role in Uzbekistan’s interest in Israel.

“We want to bring more Jewish and Israeli companies to Uzbekistan, to expand the number of investment opportunities, particularly drip irrigation,” Safoyev said.

The Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Zehavit Ben Hillel, said that “Uzbekistan is a leading country in Central Asia, so it is important to continue good relations with this country.”

Technology has been an important tool in that effort, he said.

Uzbekistan’s main crop was cotton, and there was interest in replacing the old method of flooding fields with drip irrigation, like the one Israel highlights.

Ikramov Adkham Ilkhamovich, who chairs the Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Israel’s water management is one of the best in the world and that its water-saving technologies are of great interest to his country given its battle against the drought.

“In 2016 we knew little about drip irrigation. But in a span of five years we have covered 300,000 hectares with drip irrigation, ”he said, adding that the measure also increased productivity. This includes all crops, Ikramov added.

Next year, he said, Uzbekistan plans to cover 1.2 million hectares with drip irrigation.

Ikramov said Israel has increased its agricultural output eightfold through the drip irruption, and that his country wants to follow suit.

“We are now in the initial stage of learning how to export fresh and dried fruits” and “we are interested in Israel’s experience in this area,” he said.

Israel, Ikramov said, can benefit from his country’s silk, leather and copper production. It also produces plastics and uranium.

Trade between the two countries stands at around $ 40 million to $ 45 million, but this could be vastly expanded not only through high-tech agriculture, but also through tourism, education, and medical initiatives.

“Israel, for us, has always been a very important country,” said Dilorom Fayzieva, who chairs the International Affairs Committee of the Uzbek legislature. The Knesset and parliament also seek to improve their ties, he said.

Earlier this year, former Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) held the first formal meeting of anyone in office with Uzbekistan Senate Speaker Tanzila Norbaeva when the two spoke about Zoom.

To BETTER understand Uzbekistan’s balancing act in its foreign relations, Safoyev said, one must take into account the fact that the country is landlocked and must have good relations with all its neighbors, especially with regard to the transport.

“As Napoleon said, ‘If you want to understand the foreign policy of any country, you have to study its geography,” Safoyev said.

Both the Afghanistan corridor and the one through Turkmenistan and Iran offer you the best route to the sea.

Uzbekistan maintains good relations with Tehran, he said.

“Iran is a major regional power” and, through its operation, “our main trade routes to Europe and the Middle East,” he added.

Likewise, he said, his country has been in conversation with the Taliban since it took control of Afghanistan over the summer, although it has not established formal ties with their government.

“The whole world is closely watching what is happening in Afghanistan,” Safoyev said.

There is no immediate plan to normalize ties, but sustained dialogue is important, he added.

Safoyev said he believes that “the entire world community appreciates the fact that Uzbekistan is a channel for systematic dialogue with the current rulers of Afghanistan,” he explained.

This communication corridor allows Uzbekistan to help prevent a humanitarian crisis in that country, Safoyev said, adding that he opposed sanctions against the Taliban that would harm the Afghan population.

“We must not punish people. They would be the ones who would suffer some kind of blockage or freezing of assets, “said Safoyev.

It is an important step in preventing a wave of refugees from Afghanistan and preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists as it was in the past before US forces were in the country.

“We must not repeat the mistakes of the former Soviet Union, which withdrew from Afghanistan and forgot about this country.

“The international community must remain committed to the country to prevent” it from becoming bases for al-Qaeda and ISIS, he said.

“The Taliban are a reality. It is a factor in political life in Afghanistan and we have to take advantage of it, ”Safoyev said. The impetus must be to reform the Taliban to include minorities and women, he said, adding that it must also prevent terrorism. It is particularly important that infrastructure projects continue in that country.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Safoyev said, he feels that his country has an important role in maintaining dialogue with both parties.

“Dialogue is always better than conflict” and goes a long way toward “addressing” what he called the confidence deficit in modern diplomacy, Safoyev said, adding that this idea was at the heart of his country’s diplomacy. .

“Every human being deserves to have a peaceful life, to have prosperity and to live together in this world,” Safoyev said.

Nobody leaves this planet for another.

“All of our neighbors come from God and we must appreciate them,” he added.

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