Tbilisi Ties Are Vital

Three major incidents involving Israelis in less than a month have apparently scandalized the Georgians.

Georgians boast that Jews have been part of their society for 26 centuries, and their country still seems a friendly place for Israeli visitors. Hebrew is heard everywhere in Tbilisi, currency exchange shops display Israeli flags, and outside a large restaurant near the immaculately kept 19th-century synagogue, a Hebrew sign promises "kosher meat."

On the other side of the country, in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, hotels offer Hebrew-language television, direct Tel Aviv flights start this month, and casinos welcome Israelis as valued customers.

But it was also in Batumi that two Israeli businessmen were arrested last year, in what was - depending whom you listen to - either a symptom or a cause of deteriorating bilateral relations already wobbly from the fall-out of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Rony Fuchs and associate Zeev Frenkiel were convicted of offering the Georgian deputy finance minister a $7-million bribe to convince his government not to appeal an international arbitration award of $98.1 million on a past energy deal.

Despite numerous Israeli efforts, including a call by President Shimon Peres to Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili - asking for leniency, according to the businessmen's families - last month they were sentenced to terms of seven and six-and-a-half years respectively. Shortly after came news that the Israeli defense contractor Elbit was suing Tbilisi for $100 million, followed by revelations that Israeli security firm Global CST had visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia to deliver "economic" consultancy.

Three major incidents in less than a month apparently scandalized the Georgians. Jerusalem's interventions on behalf of Fuchs and Frenkiel were viewed as a direct insult by Tbilisi, which has made much of recent anti-corruption measures. "It's hard to understand how they thought we could ignore our own laws, just because the businessmen happened to be Israeli," one Georgian diplomat told me.

The supposed debt to Elbit has been staunchly denied, and as for the Abkhazia visit, "How would the Israelis feel if we supplied 'security advice' to the Gaza Strip?" asked another official.

This seems to bode ill for two countries that once enjoyed such close relations. In the 1990s, Israel was among the first to recognize the newly independent Georgia, and private investors began to take an interest in the state, still reeling from civil war. There was military cooperation, too, with Israel helping refurbish Georgia's fleet of Soviet MIG jets, as well as providing army training and equipment. Beyond the economic and sentimental ties - some 120,000 Georgian Jews live in Israel, with a community of around 13,000 remaining back home - Georgia is a strategic ally too. It is relatively close, both geographically and politically, to Iran; located on a crucial energy supply route; and is a useful base for Israel to keep an eye on Islamists in the north Caucasus.

But things have changed since the 2008 war, which left Saakashvili humiliated by the West's refusal to rush to his aid. Russia demanded Israel cease military ties with Georgia, and Jerusalem duly complied. And it could be that the new Georgia's passionate embrace of all things Western has waned a little ever since. Certainly President Barack Obama did not follow his predecessor's initial approach toward Georgia, preferring to prioritize his relationship with Russia.

Georgia's annoyance with Israel might be a way of displaying its proxy frustration with the U.S. Some close to Fuchs and Frenkiel - both impeccably connected businessmen - believe that their prosecution would have been unthinkable pre-2008.

But there is also a wider change of policy which Israel can't ignore, with Tbilisi looking more closely at building connections with regional allies, notably Turkey and Iran. Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze made rather pointed comments last year defending Iran's right, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to develop domestic nuclear power, in what was interpreted as a swipe at non-signatory Israel. And Iran is ever more a valued partner for Tbilisi, not only as a potential investor, but as a source of tourism, a sector Georgia is awarding obsessional importance. Last November, an Iranian consulate opened in Batumi and with visa requirements recently abolished, the seaside town was filled with Iranian families during the spring festival of Nourouz.

It might be rather nice if Israeli and Iranian tourists find themselves side by side on Batumi beaches this summer. But links with Georgia aren't all about tourism. Israel can ill afford to let bilateral relations deteriorate in other fields, not least because its diplomatic and economic ties with other previous allies - Turkey and Egypt come to mind - are increasingly uncertain. Many Georgians see the hand of Russia in Israel's actions, and Russian diplomacy is notorious for its shopping-list approach, with negotiations accompanied by demands for unrelated concessions. It's likely that Georgia has come up in Moscow-Jerusalem discussions.

But this shouldn't be a zero-sum game, and strategic considerations can't be allowed to further widen the gulf between Israel and Georgia. At the very least, last month's apparent tit-for-tat exchanges are an irresponsible display of power.

Tbilisi's links to so many other issues of significance to Jerusalem - Iran, energy, monitoring extremism - means that it is a friendship that remains important, and shouldn't just be measured in the number of bottles of Georgian wine Israeli tourists bring back each year.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.