|Jerusalem and Tbilisi|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
On the Georgian Airlines plane that took us from Tel-Aviv to Tbilisi, the hostess offered me a Georgian business magazine, Georgian Business Week. One of the main news items appeared under the headline, “Georgian businessmen attend Georgia-Israel Business Forum in Tel-Aviv”. There followed an article saying that this meeting had offered unique opportunities to develop joint projects in the fields of banking, transport, health and tourism. Emphasis was placed on the fact that the very large Georgian business delegation had been led by the Minister for Economic Development, and that the Mayor of Tbilisi and a large number of officials came to Israel for the occasion.
The article summarized the way relations between Israel and Georgia were developing in a highly dynamic and determined manner.
As part of our tour of the Jewish world, and after our stop in Azerbaijan (cf. Shalom Vol. 47), the logical next step was to visit the Jews of Georgia. Bordered on the north by the Caucasus and washed in the west by the Black Sea, Georgia shares frontiers with the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. On account of the country’s geopolitical position, Israel’s embassy there is thus of primary importance. In Tbilisi we met His Excellency Mr. Shabtai Tsur, Israel’s ambassador and plenipotentiary extraordinary, himself of Georgian extraction. We asked him to tell us about the nature of relations between the two countries.
Could you give us a brief appraisal of the history of relations between Georgia and Israel, and paint a picture of current relations between the two states?
Before answering your question I would like to say how profoundly honored I feel to represent the State of Israel and the Jewish People here, where my wife and I were born and which we left in 1972. For me, coming back here with such an important task represents a major event in my life, involving a wide range of responsibilities. I am in fact the first Israeli ambassador here who came from Georgia, just as I was the first mayor from this country, having had the privilege of serving as mayor of Ashkelon, after having been elected in 2003. In 2004 I was appointed by the then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to this position in Tbilisi. Since then, I have been doing everything in my power to carry out my mission successfully. And that seems to be the case, since I was appointed for two years and at the end of that period my contract was renewed.
In respect of relations between the two countries, in April 2007 we celebrated 15 years of diplomatic relations. I can see that these are excellent at all levels, and in fact only get better with each passing day. The relations are exceptionally dynamic, particularly since following the 2003 revolution the people in power are aged between 28 and 40, which gives Georgia a special vitality. You have to understand that what in November 2003 was called the “Rose Revolution” was in fact a major shake up. Thus, for example, today 90% of school children study English and no longer Russian, and the entire economic system has become radically capitalist in the American style. The United States’ presence here is very large, not just economically but also militarily. The new American embassy has 650 employees, of whom 400 are Georgians. What’s more, Georgia has sent 2,000 troops to Iraq. The entire Georgian army was reorganized by America, which obtained permission to set up several military bases in the country.
How do you explain that America has made such efforts to strengthen its position in Georgia?
You just need to look at a map of the region to understand Georgia’s importance. Today it has an alliance with Azerbaijan and Ukraine to counter Russia on the energy front. The Heads of State of the countries in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and several others are very good friends and present a unified front, especially in everything to do with oil, gas and of course the protection and development of the oil pipelines that operate independently from both Iran and Russia.
Do you believe the fact that you came to Tbilisi just after the revolution is an advantage or disadvantage in carrying out your job?
I have to say that I was very well acquainted with Edward Shevardnadze, who had to step down, and with whom I had excellent relations when I served as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor on Georgian affairs. Having said which, I believe that coming here straight after the revolution was in fact beneficial for both countries. I have been very well received, and on account of the dynamism of the new governing team several joint projects in the economic and cultural fields have been completed very quickly. Did you know that just two years ago, Georgia was in the 137th position in the world and today is ranked number 24? Another interesting, major development has been the fight against corruption. Until quite recently, whenever people thought of Georgia they thought of a corrupt country. Today there is a law on the books providing 7 years imprisonment for anyone offering under the table deals, and 14 years for those who accept! I can tell you that this has drastically calmed down all sorts of aspirations… and has filled up the prisons. You have to understand to what degree this new situation has given a push to business in general and that between our two countries in particular. Once there had been a whole phalanx of intermediaries who were very amply remunerated to arrange access to the business and commercial decision makers. Today contacts are direct, and Israeli business people who come here have no difficulty meeting those who might be able to advance a project or proposal. By the way, hardly a week after the Tel-Aviv Business Forum, a large delegation of Israeli businessmen arrived in Tbilisi, including many real estate entrepreneurs.
What are things like at the political level?
President Mikheil Saakashvili has managed the remarkable achievement of establishing good relations with all his direct neighbors. It is interesting to note that notwithstanding the Americanization of the country, the daily strengthening of exchanges with Israel and the political support Georgia provides us within international organizations, its relations with Iran are excellent. This development owes itself to the Georgian mindset, which generally does not concern itself with someone’s origins or religion, but rather with how they behave and what can be carried out together. In fact, Georgians do not really have racial prejudices, and nowadays the population is very heterogeneous, with people from all the neighboring countries, often Muslims, living here.
Similarly, there is no anti-Semitism in Georgia, and even the orthodox clergy are friendly towards us. I have excellent relations with the Patriarch, who comes every year to our Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations, and who encourages his followers to visit Jerusalem regularly. The Jewish presence in Georgia, by the way, goes back 2,600 years! When I say that there is no anti-Semitism, I mean that you can go around anywhere in the country wearing a kippah without the slightest problems. Even though today the Jewish population is greatly reduced, all the cemeteries are properly maintained and looked after. And Jews are strongly represented in certain sectors. The Minister of Defense, who is 29 years old, is Jewish, as are many leading businessmen and the head of the country’s largest television channel, and there are three Jewish deputies in parliament. All this together means not just that the population can fully live its own identity, but also at the political level Georgia has rapidly become much more than a friendly nation, and is today a true ally.
And despite all that, Georgia has very good relations with Iran. Does this impact on relations with Israel?
Absolutely not. Rather the contrary. It is not unusual for the Iranian ambassador to be summoned to the Georgian Foreign Ministry to hear Georgia’s disapproval of the Iranian President’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic statements. As I have already mentioned, I am now here three years and I have never heard the slightest suggestion that relations with Israel would have to be limited to satisfy Iran, rather the contrary. There is nothing clouding the relations between our two countries. To illustrate this, let me tell you that all 235 parliamentary deputies honored us with their presence at our Yom Ha’Atzmaut reception, to celebrate Israel’s independence with us. What’s more, in the short time that the President has been in office, he has already made two trips to Israel. To summarize Georgian-Israel relations, I would say that their improvement and development are due above all to economic growth, to which both sides contribute. This is where we are making most efforts, and we are doing everything we can to promote not just business but also academic and cultural exchanges.
The Israeli ambassador in a given country is of course there to develop relations between the two countries and to defend the interests of the Jewish State, but he is also Jerusalem’s envoy to the Jewish community. As a Georgian Jew, how do you see the Georgian community today?
I am in fact very involved in communal life. I am a religious Jew, and on Shabbat I walk to the synagogue, which is a 30-minute downhill walk from my home and 45 minutes back uphill, always surrounded by a large security detail. I also take a very active part in communal life. I have already brought in two new Sifrei Torah, and I deal with problems that crop up. I was also very involved in the renovation project for the central synagogue. Since 2002 I have been the President of the World Congress of Jews from Georgia.