Pinkhaz Avivi: “We embrace the potential of economic ties with the South Caucasus”

Pinkhaz Avivi: “We embrace the potential of economic ties with the South Caucasus”

Pinkhaz Avivi is one of the most experienced and well-known Israeli diplomats. Ex-ambassador of Israel to Turkey, ex-deputy Foreign Minister, currently the head of the Caucasus and Central Asia Department under the Israeli Foreign Ministry, he is the first among Israeli experts in this field. Pinkhaz Avivi gave VK an interview touching upon the Israeli political course regarding the Caucasian region.

- What are Israeli interests in the region of the South Caucasus? And how important are they?

- It’s hard to answer briefly. It is obvious that the role of the South Caucasus in global politics increased after the events of the ‘Arab spring’, as only today can we truly appreciate the importance of this region as a source of energy resources. And today our relations with Azerbaijan are much more significant to us than they used to be even a few months ago. But energy isn’t our only interest: we see Azerbaijan as a model of a tolerant Islamic state that can oppose growing Islam radicalism. We embrace the potential of economic ties with the South Caucasus. And we also understand that one should be extremely cautious in his actions in this region to maintain good relations with all of its countries with all their conflicts.

- And what is the position of Israel regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict?

- We try to maintain a constructive dialogue with both sides. Our position is the following: we recognize the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but we understand that, just as in the Israeli-Palestinian case, all difficulties should be resolved through constructive discussion between the two parties without any interference from the outside. And this is the essence of our position regarding all similar conflicts. We don’t try to hide the fact that our relations with Azerbaijan are more intense and rewarding than our relations with Armenia and that relations with Azerbaijan are strategically important to us. We have many common goals. We understand Azerbaijan’s concern with its Iranian neighbor better than anyone, and that’s a good ground for rapprochement. Our dialogue with Armenia, on the other hand, has always been interconnected with our relations with Turkey. And now, when we are experiencing a certain chilling here, our relations with Armenia might become more active. But I don’t think they’ll ever be as intense as our relations with Azerbaijan.

- How did the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations influence your relations with Azerbaijan?

- It didn’t. I can’t hide that we were a bit worried at first, as Ankara and Baku are extremely close.  But our concerns didn’t materialise. Personally, I think it can be explained by the fact that the Azerbaijani government had a much closer relationship with the previous government of Turkey than it has with the present one. Azerbaijan is an open state that promotes a modern tolerant Islam. And the radical Islamist course of the new Turkish government of Erdogan scares Baku, as well as the governments of Central Asia. So the greater the influence of Islamicism in Turkish policy is, the weaker the country’s influence over the other states of the Turkic world. I mean diplomatically, as the economic influence of Turkey in these countries still grows – and that’s a paradox.

- Some experts suggested that the deterioration of Israeli relations with Turkey could result in Azerbaijan replacing Turkey in Israel’s political schemes…

- That’s what I’ve been talking about, only from a different angle. To be completely honest, the relations with Azerbaijan are very important for us, but they can’t fully substitute for what we lost in this conflict with Turkey. We are interested in Azerbaijan as it is, and Turkey and Azerbaijan are not interchangeable. It is impossible to translate the experience of years of diplomatic and political cooperation from one region to another. But we are extremely grateful to Azerbaijan, as it didn’t change its policy towards Israel in order to please Turkey.

- What did you mean by saying that it is now possible to reanimate Israeli relations with Armenia? The Armenian media has been talking about the possibility of Israel recognizing the genocide of the Armenians…

- I don’t believe that any Israeli official would agree to officially recognize this genocide of 1915. I don’t believe that the word ‘genocide’ is appropriate here. I’ve been to Turkey as an ambassador, and I’ve witnessed numerous proposals by Turkey to resolve this question through joint research by Armenian and Turkish historians. As for Sarkozy’s latest words on this issue, they are merely a political move. We don’t want to play these games. We have good relations with Armenia and we sympathize with this tragedy of the Armenian people, but we don’t want to make any final judgment before the two parties involved come to common terms on the issue.

- How are your economic relations with Armenia developing?
- They are not broad yet. They can’t be compared to our extensive ties with Azerbaijan in this field. This is understandable: Armenia’s economy is tightly connected to Georgia’s and Iran’s economies and it can’t be called a leading economy in the region.

- Did anything change in Israel’s relations with Georgia after the latter’s conflict with Russia? Israel stopped arms shipments to Georgia under Russian pressure…

- We didn’t stop defensive weapons trade with Georgia, we merely don’t sell it any weapons that could tip the strategic balance in the region, and Russia appreciates our delicate approach to this matter. We want nothing but peace for this region so that the economy, tourism, etc could develop there to the full extent. And if anything stands in the way of our good relations with Georgia, it’s not weapon shipments, but the unjust arrest of two of our businessmen there, as it scared away our business investors from Georgia and that in its turn affects our diplomatic relations.

- According to the Georgian side, this is not a political process. They claim that the incident of bribery has already been proven. So what grounds does Israel have to interfere with another country’s judicial system?

- We never intended to interfere with the Georgian justice system. We are concerned by the way that they were lured to Tbilisi by the Georgian Prime Minister himself to be subjected to this dubious arrest. Israeli public opinion is troubled by it, and here public opinion means a great deal.

- According to the businessmen, the conditions of their imprisonment have been gradually deteriorating…

- We are monitoring the situation and we demand amelioration if it’s necessary. And we don’t want this situation to be repeated.

- So what solution do you propose? You think that the Georgian court should change its decision?

- If both sides acted constructively, we would have found an acceptable solution already. But unfortunately Georgia doesn’t want to show its good will.

- You say you are interested in the development of tourism in the South Caucasus? They truly have great potential, but it’s still unexplored by the Israeli…

- You are mistaken: take Georgia for example. You’ll find a great number of Israeli tourists there. The flow of Israeli tourists to Armenia is also growing. Ironically, it’s Azerbaijan that is still largely unexplored by our tourists. When Israeli people stopped spending their vacations in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia used the situation to their benefit and carried out all the necessary actions to attract Israeli tourists. Azerbaijan, for its part, somehow missed this opportunity. For example, it’s still hard to obtain an Azeri visa. And there’s no actual Azeri Embassy in Israel. But we hope for the best.

- Do you think that there’s a chance of Israeli-Turkish rapprochement in the foreseeable future?

- I don’t see it. It’s possible that there will be some amelioration, but nothing more. We were very close, but even this relationship proved easy to shatter. However, it’s extremely hard to restore what has been destroyed, even taking into account the fact that our economic relations remain on the same level. In this crisis Turkey lost a leverage to influence the situation in the region, so it has also lost.
Interview by Peter Lukimson, exclusively to VK.