9 June, 2020 11:38

Armenia’s Relations With Israel and the U.S.: A Conversation With Grigor Hovhannissian

As Armenia’s deputy foreign minister (2018-20) Grigor Hovhannissian played a key role in establishing the Armenian embassy in Israel. Prior to that he was ambassador to the United States (2016-18). Before returning to Armenia in 2006, Hovhannissian worked for the UN missions in Africa and the Middle East, including Israel. Last April, Hovhannissian left the foreign ministry to work in the private sector. He answered Emil Sanamyan’s questions about Armenia’s relations with Israel and US.

What is the status of Armenia's embassy in Israel, is it formally open and functioning?

It is formally open, it has an address and accredited diplomatic staff. Because of the pandemic and travel restrictions, our diplomats have not been able to return to Tel Aviv, but it is a matter of weeks, I believe.

What were the barriers to opening of the embassy all these years? And how were they finally overcome?

There were no formal barriers, as far as Armenia is concerned. In early days of Armenia's independence Israel was quite forthcoming in terms of building relations, but there was some reticence on the part of Armenia. The first president Levon Ter-Petrossian and his team were excessively cautious about engaging with Israel to the detriment of Armenia's relations with other Middle Eastern partners.

While Armenia always stated her desire to build partnership with the Jewish state, the slowness in changing from the Soviet traditional thinking of the Greater Middle East (typical of the first generation of Armenian diplomats) to a genuinely national vision of the region, to which Armenia is an integral part, in my view, prevented the required bold move. In the meantime, Israel was quite proactive in reaching out to practically all nations of the former socialist bloc, including our regional arch-rival, which also became a key client for the Israeli military industrial complex and energy supplier.

For more than 20 years there were active talks of opening embassies reciprocally or in a synchronized manner, but in the fluid geostrategic environment of the region it was not propitious. It took a change in paradigm in Armenia to break the stereotypical thinking and the unnecessary deadlock. Armenia-centered foreign policy in the Greater Middle East entails active engagement with all partners in the region.

While Armenia continues to adhere to the international legitimacy regarding Middle East conflicts, we can no longer condition our relations with key partners upon our relations with third countries. We honestly spoke to our traditional partners in Iran and Arab capitals about this new policy of active engagement and I think it was very well taken and understood.

I am quite certain that Israel will soon reciprocate and open its own embassy in Yerevan. This may take longer than originally thought though, given the dramatic coalition government formation process the country went through in the last year.

Hovhannissian meets Israel's ambassador to Armenia Eliav Belotsercovsky.What are Armenia's priorities in relations with Israel?

Israel is a technological powerhouse in the region and well beyond it. In order to materialize our vision for leapfrogging our knowledge-based economy, Israel is viewed as quite an indispensable partner with its R&D, IT, agritech, cybersecurity, defense, medical research, bioengineering and startup communities, universities and venture capitalists. Perhaps, this would be the first building block in future relations.

From the Israeli perspective, Armenia with her liberal regulatory regime and increased transparency and as a member of Eurasian Union is a potential gateway to the Eurasian customs union. Armenia is well positioned in the region as partner for cooperation in IT, cybersecurity sectors. Also, Armenia is a safe country for the Israeli tourists, therefore tourism should also be seen as promising area of cooperation. Down the road, I see an increased dialogue with Israelis on international security, given Israel's expanding outreach beyond Levant and Eastern Mediterranean, their engagement with our strategic partners, e.g. in CSTO or India.

Last, but not least, we Armenians have a tremendous cultural and historical heritage in Israel, which requires "care and maintenance", in addition to a sizable diaspora both old and Soviet, which also require systematic work and services.

So, in the nutshell, the bilateral agenda that is currently being built has the elements of economic cooperation, political dialogue, and diaspora relations.

As you mentioned, Israel is a leading weapons supplier to Azerbaijan. Most recently, Israel supplied the LORA missile system that Azerbaijan threatened to use against Armenia’s nuclear power plant to cause mass casualties. What should Armenia and her friends in Israel do about this?

Obviously, this is a very serious and worrisome development. While we have not heard any public pronouncements from Yerevan, I am pretty confident that our services have taken note of this development and are or will be following it up both with our CSTO partners and with the Israelis.

In the past, when confronted with the question of arms sales to Azerbaijan, our Israeli interlocutors would question why is it OK for other countries (including CSTO and NATO members) to sell weapons to Azerbaijan and it is not OK for Israel to do so. And the answer to that question is pretty straightforward – because Israeli weapons change the strategic balance of otherwise conventional warfare and fuel an exorbitant arms-race. That was painfully felt during the 2016 April flare-up along the Artsakh-Azerbaijan border, when the Israeli made kamikaze drones inflicted heavy losses on our military personnel.

This being said, the Israeli defense technologies are also available to Armenia for sale – if not exact same types as the ones supplied to Azerbaijan, but comparable. To this end, the Israeli manufacturers and arms sellers have been approaching us for quite some time. In today’s world of transactional politics, there is a little room for moral reasoning and narratives, but I see a potential for engaging with Israeli political leaders with the objective of limiting the involvement of the Israeli defense industry in the Artsakh-Azerbaijan conflict – a responsible behavior adhered to by most democracies.

On relations with U.S. in recent years

What would you say were your main accomplishments as ambassador, what you were not able to accomplish and what do you expect from Armenia’s engagement with U.S. in coming years?

My tenure in Washington coincided with the period of transition from Obama’s liberal administration to Trump’s America-centered vision of the world, in which Armenia barely had any place. So, this was not a time for breakthroughs and quantifiable achievements, rather this was a period of understanding the depth of the change and advising Yerevan on how to deal with the new administration and its priorities. The last year of Obama’s administration was also quite intense and with the growing dissatisfaction with our domestic policies or our geopolitical choices, my mission was to preserve the level and intensity of our political dialogue and try to take it to the next level.

All this being said, I also believe that together with my team we achieved quite a lot. We succeeded in transforming the perception of our country in Washington and put the embassy of Armenia on the map of DC, as a venue for political, academic and cultural exchanges, arts and gastronomy. We made Armenia more known though groundbreaking cultural and educational events, such as the Smithsonian Folk Life festival on the grounds of the National Mall.

While the administration was in a long transition period, we strengthened our relations with Congress. In 2.5 years in DC I personally met with over 250 members of Congress. And after more than a decade of a break, we re-launched the Congressional delegations to Armenia and Artsakh. They have since become annual. In addition to the Armenian Caucus, which traditionally deals with Armenian issues on the Hill, we developed relations with the House Democracy Partnership Program.

Ambassador Hovhannissian presents credentials to the U.S. President Barack Obama, January 29, 2016. We deepened our relations with the states of California and Massachusetts and prepared a framework agreement between Armenia and California on trade and investment. As an important step towards Armenia’s outreach to our traditional “constituency” – Armenian American community, we expanded the network of our Honorary Consulates. We reached out to forge alliances with influential Mexican-American, Evangelical communities and with grassroots and advocacy Jewish groups.

Perhaps, one of my most important achievements was the intense dialogue and fruitful work with the Armenian American community as a whole. Those 2.5 years in DC were marked by non-stop travels to faraway communities, parishes and schools where I had the privilege of meeting tens of thousands of our country men and women, inspire them with the vision of our common homeland and get inspired by selfless devotion and the volunteer spirit of our people.

Finally, what prompted your resignation in April and what are you up to now? 

This was not an easy decision and at a very difficult time. It turned out that I am having hard time adjusting to the bureaucratic HQ environment after many years of “field” work. At some point I realized that I needed a more stimulating and more informal environment in order to make my personal contribution towards our collective understanding of the outside world and Armenia’s place in it.

Meanwhile, I was offered to become Chairman of the Board of Araratbank – an offer I gladly took to also work on international dealings of a major Armenian bank. It is a new U-turn in my life, which I embrace wholeheartedly, but hope to remain actively involved in foreign policy debate and development.