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An Israeli government minister spoke of a “breakthrough” in Israel’s uneasy relationship with Armenia on Wednesday during an official visit to Yerevan that focused on ways of boosting bilateral economic cooperation.

“The aim of my visit is to strengthen our relationship,” Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) shortly before meeting with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian.

“The friendship [between the two nations] has been there for many years,” said Hanegbi. “Diplomatic relations have existed for 25 years. But now we are thinking of more practical mutual fields to work together and to make this friendship mutually beneficial in many fields.”

“I think that for more than ten years there have been no visits of an Israeli minister [to Armenia.] So this is a new breakthrough, and I’m happy to be part of it,” he added.

Hanegbi, who is affiliated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, began his trip on Tuesday with talks with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. “Minister Hanegbi noted that Israel wants to develop friendly relations with Armenia and this is the main message of his visit,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The two men signed agreements on avoidance of double taxation and mutual lifting of visa requirements for holders of Armenian and Israeli diplomatic passports. The Israeli cabinet member also signed a separate document on bilateral cultural exchanges with Armenia Culture Minister Armen Amirian.

Karapetian told Hanegbi that Yerevan too would like to boost Armenian-Israeli ties when they met on Wednesday. “The interlocutors exchanged views on the prospects of economic relations and business contacts between Armenia and Israel,” read a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.

Armenia - Prime Minister Karen Karapetian meets with Israel's Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi in Yerevan, 26Jul2017.
Armenia - Prime Minister Karen Karapetian meets with Israel's Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi in Yerevan, 26Jul2017.

Karapetian was also reported to say that his government is interested in attracting Israeli investments in various sectors of the Armenian economy and information technology (IT) in particular. Transport and Communications Minister Vahan Martirosian said technology centers operating in Armenia “would be happy to host Israeli IT companies” during his separate talks with Hanegbi held earlier in the day.

According to official Armenian statistics, Armenia’s trade with Israel stood at a modest $8.5 million in 2016.

Relations between Armenia and Israel have been frosty ever since the Soviet collapse, reflecting conflicting geopolitical priorities of the two states. Armenia has maintained a warm rapport with Iran to ease its geographic isolation, while Israel has pursued strategic cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Armenia has been particularly worried about Israel’s large-scale arms deals with its arch-foe, Azerbaijan. In 2012, Israeli defense officials confirmed a reported deal to provide the Azerbaijani military with more weapons worth a combined $1.6 billion. The Azerbaijani army used some of these Israeli-made weapons, notably sophisticated anti-tank rockets, during April 2016 hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Israel’s current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a staunch backer of close ties with Baku. Lieberman reportedly reaffirmed last December his support for Azerbaijan’s “territorial integrity and inviolability of borders” in the Karabakh conflict.

Hanegbi, who held key security positions in the Israeli cabinet in 2003-2006, declined to comment on the Israeli arms supplies to Baku. “My trip here is concentrated on positive sides of enhancing the relationship between our countries,” he said.

According to the Foreign Ministry statement, Hanegbi presented “Israel’s approaches to regional developments” at the talks with Nalbandian. The latter briefed the Israeli minister on international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict.

Nalbandian did not meet with any Israeli cabinet members when he visited Israel in March 2015 to attend a concert by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Nalbandian again flew to Jerusalem in March this year to take part in official ceremonies marking the completion of restoration works at the Church of Holy Sepulcher. He held no talks with Israeli leaders.

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