On July 5, 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to make an official trip to Kazakhstan. Netanyahu’s announcement garnered considerable attention in Israel, as visits by Israeli leaders to Central Asia are extremely rare. Israeli President Shimon Peres’s 2009 visit to Kazakhstan was the first trip by any Israeli head of state to Astana since Israel established diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan in 1992.
Netanyahu’s intention to travel to Astana underscores the increasing importance of Kazakhstan to Israel’s geopolitical ambitions. In November 2015, Israel entered into a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Kazakhstan is likely to be the chief beneficiary of Israel’s closer EEU linkages, because of its neutral stance in the Israel-Palestine conflict and staunch opposition to radical Islamist movements.
Israel’s strategic partnership with Kazakhstan can be explained by a myriad of economic and security factors. Kazakhstan is a vital oil supplier to Israel and Israel has contributed greatly to Kazakhstan’s economic diversification efforts. Israel’s provisions of military technology and counterterrorism assistance to Kazakhstan have resulted in Kazakhstan becoming one of Israel’s closest security partners in the Muslim world.
The Economic Underpinnings of the Israel-Kazakhstan Partnership
Even though Israel’s relationship with Kazakhstan has become noticeably closer since Netanyahu began his second stint as Israeli prime minister in 2009, Kazakhstan has been the lynchpin of Israel’s Central Asia strategy since the early 1990s. Israel is Kazakhstan’s fifth largest Asian trade partner, and imports over $1.4 billion worth of goods from Kazakhstan each year.
The oil industry is the principal driver of Israel’s economic links with Kazakhstan. Israel imports 25 percent of its oil from Kazakhstan. Chen Bar-Yosef, the Managing Director of the Israeli National Infrastructure Ministry’s Fuel Authority, has praised the quality of Kazakhstan’s oil, and has encouraged Kazakh manufacturers to sell oil directly to Israeli private companies.
Kazakh policymakers believe that Israel could indirectly assist Kazakhstan’s attempts to increase its oil exports to East Asia. In November 2006, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced that Kazakhstan would expand its investments in Haifa’s oil refineries.
Masimov has also called for an extension of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline to Israel. Should the BTC pipeline expand to Israel, Israel’s oil terminals at Ashkelon and Eilat could be used to increase Kazakh oil shipments to Europe and East Asia.
In addition to importing Kazakh oil, Israel has played a prominent role in assisting President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s economic diversification efforts. Israeli business leaders have been especially vocal supporters of closer Israel-Kazakhstan investment linkages.
Nimrod Novik, vice president of Israeli multinational Merhav, lobbied the Israeli government to invest in Kazakhstan during the 1990s, claiming that Kazakhstan is “one of the wealthiest countries in the world underground, and one of the least developed above ground.” Israeli policymakers heeded Novik’s advice. By 2009, 52 major Israeli companies had established business operations in Kazakhstan.
Israel-Kazakhstan economic cooperation has produced tangible successes across a wide range of sectors. The agriculture ministries of Israel and Kazakhstan have cooperated directly on the development of a joint irrigation system in the Almaty region. Israel has also helped boost Kazakhstan’s agricultural production by imparting Israeli desalinization techniques to Kazakh farmers. In the early 1990s, Israel’s aviation agreement allowing for weekly flights from Israel to Almaty (then known as Alma-Ata) was a major step toward facilitating closer Israel-Kazakhstan business and technology sharing linkages.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has also used his close relationship with Nazarbayev to advance Israel’s business interests in Kazakhstan. Barak spoke to Nazarbayev in late 2014 about how Israel could help Kazakhstan harness its industrial innovation potential and improve the quality of its health services. Further advances in these fields will ensure that Israel remains a vital economic partner for Kazakhstan, even as Astana strengthens its alliance with Iran.
Even though Netanyahu has made considerable progress toward consolidating an economic partnership between Israel and Kazakhstan, some problems remain. Kazakhstan’s economic malaise, high corruption levels, and currency crisis have caused some Israeli businesses to reconsider their investments in Kazakhstan. Kazakh companies have also struggled to break into the Israeli market.
While these obstacles cannot be easily overcome, Israel’s free trade agreement with the EEU and Kazakhstan’s November 2015 World Trade Organization (WTO) membership should provide a foundation for more durable Israel-Kazakhstan economic cooperation in the years to come.
The Israel-Kazakhstan Security Partnership
Since the early 1990s, Israel and Kazakhstan have developed a multifaceted security partnership involving exchanges of military technology, counterterrorism cooperation, and intelligence sharing.
Israel and Kazakhstan have been counterterrorism partners for almost two decades. Kazakhstan’s fear of terrorist attacks rose precipitously during the mid-1990s, due to the rising presence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the destabilization created by the Tajikistan civil war, and blowback from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The Kazakh military believed that a closer relationship with Israel would strengthen its counterterrorism efforts, as Israel had decades of experience combating Palestinian terror organizations.
According to a 2014 Jamestown Foundation report, Israel-Kazakhstan security cooperation increased dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. Israel became a natural ally for Kazakhstan after 9/11 because of its ability to produce sophisticated missiles, air defense systems, and stealth weaponry. Kazakh policymakers also believed that closer ties with Israel would reciprocally strengthen Kazakhstan’s security links with the United States and the European Union. As Kazakhstan was seeking to reduce its security dependency on China and Russia, Kazakh policymakers responded cordially to Israel’s diplomatic overtures.
While Israel shares similar terrorism concerns to Kazakhstan, its alliance with Astana has been chiefly motivated by its desire to have a genuine ally in the Muslim world. Kazakhstan’s alleged sale of two nuclear warheads to Iran in the summer of 1993 alarmed Israeli policymakers. To prevent a repeat of this incident, Israel strengthened ties with Kazakhstan in an attempt to moderate Astana’s foreign policy.
These diplomatic efforts proved successful. Kazakhstan has maintained alliances with Iran and Arab countries without agreeing to military deals that could endanger Israel’s security. Recent Israeli actions in Kazakhstan reveal the strength of the Jerusalem-Astana relationship. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have trained Kazakh military forces to use Iron Dome technology, and repeatedly held joint military exercises in Kazakh facilities.
Even though major strides have been made toward durable Israel-Kazakhstan cooperation, some sources of tension persist. Kazakhstan’s close relationship with Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and alleged uranium sales to Tehran strained relations with Israel ahead of Peres’ visit in 2009. More recently, Israeli policymakers disapproved of Kazakhstan’s attempts to improve Iran’s international image during the 2015 nuclear deal negotiations
In addition, corruption within the Kazakh military has complicated Israeli military cooperation with Astana. In 2004, Kazakhstan sold Israel substandard equipment in exchange for Israeli artillery systems. Despite considerable pressure from Israel, Nazarbayev only dismissed government officials involved in these corrupt deals in 2009. Kazakhstan’s desire to import Israeli military technology has reduced visible corruption in its arms deals with Jerusalem in recent years, improving the bilateral relationship.
Despite occasional tensions, Kazakhstan remains Israel’s most important economic and security partner in Central Asia. Israeli policymakers believe that Kazakhstan is an emerging market with considerable economic potential, a vital energy supplier to Israel, and a crucial Israeli ally in the Muslim world. Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Astana will likely result in even stronger ties between Israel and Kazakhstan, ensuring that Jerusalem will have a diplomatic foothold in Central Asia for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Facebook and on Twitter at @samramani2.