Following contested reports claiming that Azerbaijan asked the Israeli company Aeronautics Defense Systems to conduct an armed drone demonstration against an Armenian military position, Israel’s Defense Ministry in late August suspended the company’s license to export to Azerbaijan. Some casual observers might deem this development a deterioration in Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. Does such tension actually exist?
Not if you ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Sept. 6 that Israel has “had great breakthroughs with Asian countries…not to mention Muslim countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.”
Indeed, by visiting Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in December 2016, Netanyahu was promoting a model for constructive Israeli and Jewish relations with the Islamic world. In Azerbaijan, he lauded Israel’s ties with that Muslim-majority nation as “something that we can show the world.”
But Netanyahu’s trip last year was nothing new. In fact, Israel and Azerbaijan have been “showing the world” a blueprint for interfaith and intercultural tolerance since they embarked on a deep bilateral relationship in 1992. The countries have extensive diplomatic, economic, and defense ties, which were detailed by Azerbaijani Member of Parliament Asim Mollazade in a recent op-ed for The Jerusalem Post. The foundation of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations is Azerbaijan’s warmth toward its 35,000-person Jewish community.
“Given the global demonization of Israel and Jews, particularly within the Islamic world, Muslim-majority Azerbaijan’s celebration (not mere tolerance) of its Jewish community is a truly inspiring story,” wrote Mollazade, who visited Israel himself in February 2016. “It is a story that media outlets would be well-served covering—leaving the fake news in the dust.”
The “fake news” Mollazade was referring to includes the drone controversy, which was ignited by a heavily disputed report in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, as well as an indisputably fake story—a fabricated webpage claiming to represent another Israeli paper, Haaretz, and claiming that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s son “has been under the supervision of Israeli doctors” while recovering from a “difficult illness” at a $6 million villa that the Aliyev family purchased in Haifa.
Regarding the drone report—which was denied by Aeronautics Defense Systems—Mollazade noted that Azerbaijan signed agreements in 2012 to purchase $1.6 billion in drones and other defense technology from Israel, and that it is “clearly in Azerbaijan’s best interests to protect itself by purchasing top-quality defense equipment from an ally…To claim that we are using Israeli drones to illegally attack Armenia, as the recent reports alleged, is offensive and utterly false.” Mollazade pointed out that one party—Armenia, which occupies internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—stands to gain from any news reports that cast doubt on the strength of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations.
The journalist behind the report in Maariv, Yossi Melman, was asked by the Mediamax news agency if he thought his drone story indicated that there are “other developments related to Israeli arms supplies to Azerbaijan.” In an interview published Sept. 5, Melman, hedging, responded, “I don’t think so. Israel and Azerbaijan have strategic relations. Azerbaijan is an important market for Israeli arms exports. So I think this will not affect Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan.”
Aside from the writer himself dismissing the notion that his report has any broader implications for Israeli-Azerbaijani ties, further evidence that the bilateral relationship is unscathed came when the Azerbaijani city of Shamakhi and the Israeli city of Tirat Carmel signed an agreement establishing a new twin city partnership, the Trend news agency reported Sept. 6.
This, not to mention that, this week, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister, Colonel General Zakir Hasanov is in Israel meeting with Minister of Defense of Israel, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman.
There have been no official statements made by Israeli nor Azerbaijani officials that indicate any degree of bilateral tension. The suspension of Aeronautics Defense Systems’s contract to export to Azerbaijan marks nothing more than the Israeli Defense Ministry conducting its due diligence on the matter, as any responsible government would do.
The storied Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship—a modern-day miracle in a world otherwise fraught with interfaith conflict, particularly between Muslims and Jews—is simply too strong to be affected by a transient disagreement over a drone contract. This isn’t even a blip on the radar screen.