By Siarhei Bohdan
Belarusians have a special attitude to Israel. In the only world's country where Yiddish ever was a state language, almost every family – even of non-Jewish origin – has either relatives, friends or acquaintances there. No wonder, three out of nine Israeli presidents, including the current president Shimon Peres are Belarusian Jews.
At the same time, Belarus for years has enjoyed quite dynamic relations with both Israel and Iran. Till 2003, Minsk maintained very close links with Saddam’s Iraq, as well. These parallel links with the states hostile to each other demonstrate that the Belarusian government is not so primitive as it sometimes seems. It is able handle such dilemmas and pragmatically avoids ideology. Belarusian officials never treat Israel in a way they treat the EU or US.
Scramble For Jewish Heritage
The links to Israel and Jewish culture of Eastern Europe became an important issue in the region. Belarusian-Jewish historical heritage is frequently claimed by its neighbours. Last week, the mayor of Lithuanian capital congratulated the Israeli president Shimon Peres with his 90th birthday. He added, “I want to say clearly and openly, you were born on the territory of the former Lithuania.”
The leading Polish daily Rzecz Pospolita corrected, “Shimon Peres was born in Poland,” and remarked, “today it is the territory of Belarus.” But actually, the Israeli president was born in the historical heartland of Belarus – Vilna region. Moreover, he openly says it, and even briefly described his Belarusian childhood in one of his books.
In July, Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate.
Belarusian authorities and society in recent times demonstrate more awareness towards importance of caring about the Jewish part of the national culture and Belarusian Jews. In July, Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate.
Meanwhile, public activists held a special event in the birthplace of the father of modern Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in the Viciebsk Voblast’. Even more symbolically, just before opening the Iranian trade centre in Brest, municipal officials there declared intent to open in October a monument to Menachem Begin, a former Israeli Prime Minister from Belarusian city of Brest.
And these symbolical gestures go beyond culture. When the former chief of Israeli Mossad intelligence service Meir Dagan needed liver transplant, he went to Minsk in October last year. The operation was successful and Belarusian authorities got one more influential friend in Israel.
Belarusian embassies have little interest in own fellow Belarusians (whatever their ethnic background) in most other countries. Belarusian Foreign Ministry always emphasises that there are 120,000 former Belarusian citizens living now in Israel, and that there are about 30,000 Jews living in Belarus (the Jewish Agency for Israel says even about 50-60 thousand). That is more even in absolute numbers than in any of neighbouring countries, except Russia.
No wonder, that one of the first visits of the de-facto ruler of freshly independent Belarus, Prime Minister Kebich, was in 1992 to Israel. Lukashenka also visited Israel in 2000. Although the official contacts between Belarus and Israel remained at rather low level – comparing, say, to to Belarus-Iranian contacts – they were very stable and less problematic than with any of the EU countries. Lukashenka regularly described bilateral relations in very positive terms. “Relations with Israel are actively developing in all directions,” is a typical phrase in his rhetoric.
As the US and EU harshly criticised the violent treatment of 2010 presidential election day's protesters and issued travel ban against Belarusian officials, Israel just allowed its ambassador not to attend the inauguration ceremony. Later, in unrelated interview, Israeli ambassador Yosef Shagal explained Israeli position towards Belarusian internal politics, “it is very important to retain good relations with a country which has an excellent attitude towards us”.
According to him, Israel, an ally of the US in world politics, never initiated sanctions against Belarus. And as for Belarus working with opponents of Israel in Baghdad, Tehran or Damascus, Shagal explained, Belarus “does not initiate anti-Israeli processes but at the same time it is supporting Russia which frequently votes against Israel.”
Finally, some radical quarters of Belarusian opposition accused Israel of collaborating with current Belarusian government. “Why New Israeli Ambassador Defends Lukashenka's Regime?” lamented last year Tut I Ciapier weekly.
The most popular speculative explanation for Tel-Aviv's benevolent attitude towards Minsk are deals between Lukashenka and some figures of Israeli establishment, in particular Avigdor Lieberman, former Foreign Minister of Isael. During Lukashenka's presidency, Lieberman visited Belarus at least five times and helped in reopening Israeli embassy in Minsk in 2004 after its closure one year earlier.
Economically, relations with Israel look not very impressive. In April, Israeli ambassador to Belarus stated that in 2012 Israeli investments in Belarus - in form of sites being built or only projected - reached USD 250-300 million. According to the ambassador, in 2013 this number shall rise to about USD 400 million.
The volume of Iranian investment is claimed by Iranian officials to be USD 960 million. The number is almost certainly exaggerated by Iranian officials, yet Iranians really invested a lot. Similar picture is in trade between Belarus and Israel and Iran. Last year, trade between Belarus and Israel reached a record level of USD 109 million, the trade volume with Iran – USD 104 million.
More Than Money
Given these circumstances, Minsk clearly has good reasons to remain friends with both Tel-Aviv and Tehran. For Belarusian government it is a matter of principle – not to determine ideologically its priorities. Belarus has a lot to gain from contacts with Tel-Aviv. And it is not only about trade and investment but also political contacts between Minsk and the West which Israeli politicians can facilitate.
Indeed, Belarusian relations with Tehran are also not only about money and definitely not about ideology. It is about increasing the role of Belarus in international politics and in Belarusian relations with some countries – Western and Arab nations in particular. But also with Israel.
The case of relations in triangle of Minsk demonstrates that foreign policy of Belarus in recent two decades achieved some flexibility. This flexibility may look cynic, yet at the end exactly this feature shall be considered central to all policies of current Belarusian regime.