Ran Ichay, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Applied Policy (JCAP), served as Israel's former ambassador to Kazakhstan. He spoke to a December 4 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Alex Selsky, senior advisor to the Middle East Forum's Israel Victory Project (IVP). The following summarizes Ichay's comments:
The emergence of Central Asian countries in the 1990's presented "new, fresh ground" for Jerusalem to develop bilateral relationships. Even though the region "inherited the Soviet legacy towards the world . . . they had nothing to do with it, in particular." With their independence, Central Asian countries were free to decide the parameters of their relationships with other countries.
Israel's relations with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc were in general politically strained. But in the post-Soviet period, Israel suddenly found "between twelve and twenty countries" newly created in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This opportunity presented the Israelis with a "tabula rasa" in international relations — a blank slate on which to write, unencumbered by preconceived biases in an area formerly hostile to the newly established Jewish state and its Zionist enterprise.
Ichay's ambassadorship to Kazakhstan began in 2006 shortly after Israel's controversial Second Lebanon War ended. Today's president of Kazakhstan, Kassyn Jomar-Tokayev, who was foreign minister at the time, accepted Ichay's credentials with a meaningful sentence: "Between both our countries there are no contradictions." The significance of that greeting, echoed by Kazakhstan's president Nazarbayev, meant that the Kazakhs, and by extension some other Central Asian countries, had more pressing issues than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Notwithstanding continued Russian influence in Central Asian countries, these nations are independent and driven more by practicalities. Kazakhstan is home to Central Asia's largest Russian minority, and Russia would only interfere if Israel harmed its interests in Central Asia. In the end, Russia is concerned mainly with other issues. To Israel's advantage, the approximately million Russian-speaking citizens who had emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel are proving beneficial in communications with Kazakhstan and the Central Asian countries.
Although Iran is connected to Central Asian countries via a shared shoreline with the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan and other countries in the region have not downgraded relations with Israel. As much as the Central Asian countries need Iran, "I think Iran needs them more with its own interest in the Caspian Sea."
In the aftermath of the October 7 attacks against Israel, Kazakhstan's president and foreign minister preserved the unique relationship between Israel and the region and issued direct condemnations of Hamas. What is new is that despite Israel's unambiguous execution of the war against Hamas, there are no harsh condemnations against Israel emanating from Central Asian countries. It is significant that although they don't express favor towards Israel, neither are they issuing statements against Israel.
However, there are two different ways to regard the relationship between Israel and Central Asian countries that are best understood against the backdrop of the conflict in the Middle East. Formally, the Arab world demands that the Central Asian countries vote against Israel in international forums and offer it no support in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "On the formal field they vote against us in any international forum they can, I mean whenever it's necessary. It's necessary in their view because that's what the Arab world demands."
But practically, Kazakhstan is "the most advanced Central Asian country in the region in her relations with Israel." The reason is that it regards its newly born state as "followers in history" to Israel's own re-establishment as a young state in the international arena. Kazakhs, as well as others, have said, "We walk now on the same route that you did some fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. You did well, and we would like to do as well as you did. Teach us. Guide us." That sentiment of bonhomie forms the "quite unique" base upon which Israel builds its activities with Central Asia.
Another salient point about Central Asian countries is that they are Muslim countries and, as such, relate to the other Muslim countries in the wider region. However, the former differ from other regional Muslim countries in that their version of Islam is cultural, not political, and religious adherence is not a primary factor in these "Sunni secular" countries. The fact that Islam is not the state religion in either Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan reflects this reality. Thus, it is no surprise that the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Iran to strengthen Islam in Central Asia and promote their own self-interests in the process have not taken hold.
Israelis in Kazakhstan feel safe because "it is a country without antisemitism." There is also a strategic component in maintaining good relations politically as well as economically in the region because of the tens of thousands Kazakh Jews who represent a regional connection that Israel shares with its co-religionists.
Central Asia's "carte blanche" attitude towards Israel must still take into account "the law of big numbers" in the international forum. Central Asian countries have multiple embassies in Arab and Muslim countries, but only one embassy in Israel. The same disparity is reflected within the capitals of Central Asia. Nonetheless, the two-tiered relationship of formalities influenced by the international dynamic, versus the "on the ground" relationship forged by practicalities, enables Israel to economically export its knowhow, science, and products to a receptive region.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.