Netanyahu forges relations with Muslim allies in Central Asia

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Ilham Aliyev during visit in Azerbaijan on December 13, 2016. (Photo by Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fulfilling his vision of developing regional relations during his current trip to oil-rich and Muslim majority nations, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Referring to enduring peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, Netanyahu shared this vision with the UN during a speech in September.

“For the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy,” he said. “They recognize that Israel is their ally.”

Before leaving on Tuesday, Netanyahu reaffirmed that “these countries want very much to strengthen ties with Israel … important countries in the Islamic world.”

This is the first visit of any Israeli prime minister to Kazakhstan and Netanyahu’s second to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has purchased nearly $5 billion of military equipment from Israel and in return primarily sold oil, but now wishes to diversify. Netanyahu and President Ilham Aliyev signed wide-ranging bilateral agreements involving trade and cooperation in what the Israeli prime minister described as a good example of, “Muslims and Jews working together to secure a better future for both of us.”

On Wednesday, Netanyahu met President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazhakstan, which will be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the next two years.

Because of regional proximity certain cultural similarities exist between the Central Asian states and Israel, as well as shared concerns and interests. However, realist Netanyahu should consider how lasting a relationship these Muslim states will have with Israel.

Kazakhstan, like Turkey, is majority Sunni Muslim and, like its neighbor Iran, Azerbaijan is majority Shiite. Both countries have a reputation for secularism and religious tolerance, although there have been clear instances of discrimination and religious persecution.

In 1978, Iran’s Western allied government was overthrown and the hard-line anti-Israel and America Ayatollahs have ruled ever since. Currently even secular Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is becoming increasingly more religious.

The question is whether the Central Asian states will also come under the sway of radical Islamists. Currently, Kazakhstan tends to follow Russia in anti-Israel voting at the UN. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s visit will persuade them to vote otherwise in their new Security Council responsibilities.

Indeed Islam is ambivalent in its teaching regarding Jews and Christians. On one hand the Quran affirms the Jewish covenant and the “people of the book,” but on the other it makes statements like, “O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends.” (5:51).

Furthermore, the Hadith End Times theology seems to explicitly advocate the killing of Jews: “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me.”

While in places Islamic teaching seems to promote truthfulness, some Islamic groups have advocated the Islamic doctrines of tawriya and taysir, as the telling of creative lies in order to gain acceptance with “infidels” in order to eventually betray and kill them during jihad.

Eschatologist Joel Richardson, in his book the Islamic Antichrist, argues from scripture that the antichrist will come out of a Muslim region, mirroring the role of the Islamic Mahdi figure and for a short period deceive the Jewish people, before being overthrown by the Messiah.

Israel seems to be developing cooperative regional relations, despite the ambivalence of Islam, at least for now. But Israel cannot be sure of her friends in the West either. Israeli officials are effectively boycotting the Swedish Foreign Minister who has made anti-Israel comments and is in Israel on a state visit, citing scheduling conflicts. But on the other hand, Britain’s ruling party, led by the daughter of an Anglican vicar, is warming to Israel and outright rejecting Palestinian demands to apologise for the 1917 Balfour Declaration which paved the way for independence.

If so much of the world is ambivalent to Israel, then who is a true friend? Perhaps the answer lies in what Israeli Messianic leader Asher Intrater wrote: “Starting in the year 2000, Israelis began to say, ‘Our only friends in the world are the Evangelical Christians.’”