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Israel and Kazakhstan: Assessing the state of bilateral relations

by Kevjn Lim

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The relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Kazakhstan offers a fascinating case study in international relations.

The modern Jewish state embodies the resilience of a nation-community subject to millennia of external persecution, but continues to be beset by a largely hostile neighbourhood. The Kazakhs, having themselves undergone a long spell of repression until only recently, have on the other hand forged a republic based overwhelmingly on a Turkic Muslim identity and infused with the ancient laws of the steppe.

On the surface, one finds little common ground. Yet over the past two decades, mutual relations have acquired tremendous significance and the sort of momentum that allows an improbable relationship to thrive. Diplomatic relations have evolved overtly and against the general grain of Islamic politics, and in some ways dovetail with Kazakhstan’s wider foreign policy outlook. Both countries report ongoing bilateral trade across a wide sweep of economic sectors, and Israel’s experience, innovation and qualitative edge continue to provide solutions to Kazakhstan’s development imperatives. While high-tech and first-rate human capital stream towards the Kazakh steppe, raw energy and wheat flow toward the Mediterranean. Likewise, there is evidence that suggests more extensive defence and security cooperation than meets the eye.

At the same time, these relations are clearly not bereft of strategic expediency. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy draws strength from balance as well as the ability to parley with diametrically opposed actors. Israel, still not quite yet within grasp of full political-diplomatic normalization with its Islamic Other, must find ways to level the playing field. Relations with Muslim Kazakhstan allow Israel to circumvent its hostile near abroad, but also provide a bridge for Israel to re-engage with the wider Islamic world, particularly through the more neutral terrain of inclusive, interfaith dialogue that Astana has prominently championed. In all these ways, historical and material conditions have converged to facilitate cooperation.

The scope, tenor and evolution of this relationship accordingly form the subject of a recent study co-authored by Open Briefing contributing analyst Kevjn Lim and published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. Israel and Kazakhstan: Assessing the State of Bilateral Relations attempts to bring fresh analysis and incorporates primary and secondary sources as well as personal interviews. In addition, it provides an overview of Kazakhstan’s domestic political landscape and key foreign relations, and examines Israel’s Kazakhstan approach by situating it within its wider Central Asian context. Some key findings highlighted in this study include:

  • Israel’s contribution to Kazakhstan in areas such as agriculture, public health, industry, higher education, environmental protection, high-technology, telecommunications, defence and security, and, more generally, the areas critical to Kazakhstan’s transition from a command economy to a 21st century, knowledge-based market economy;
  • The significance of Kazakh oil (as well as wheat and to some extent mineral) exports to Israel: Kazakhstan is Israel’s third largest oil supplier, after Azerbaijan and Russia;
  • The possibility of Israel not just circumventing but re-engaging with the Muslim world via Kazakhstan’s integrative initiatives;
  • Kazakhstan’s potential as intermediary between arch-rivals Israel and Iran, given its constant dialogue with both sides and perceptions of neutrality.

As the study’s authors argue, however, much still surprisingly remains in potentia and can be further developed. More importantly, while other economic powers are on the rise in Asia, Israel’s decision-makers ought not to lose sight of this key partner in the Islamic world.