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Azerbaijan: Israel's #1 trade partner from independent states of former Soviet bloc

There are regular reports about political and economic collaborations between Azerbaijan and Israel. The $5b in annual trade between Israel and Azerbaijan is more trade than Israel does with France.

Less discussed are the countries deep and strategic security ties.

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“We know Azerbaijan has purchased billions of dollars of weapons from Israel. We know there are several top security companies doing projects in and for Azerbaijan. There are also very strong security connections – strong and sophisticated – on a very high level,” says Arye Gut, an Israeli import manager, originally from Azerbaijan. “But we don’t talk about it so much. It’s covert. What you read is about 1 percent of the relations. The other 99 percent, you don’t see.”

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed similar sentiments in a comment captured in a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Baku a few years ago: “The Israeli-Azerbaijani bilateral relationship is like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it below the surface.”

Reports are beginning to surface. Asim Mollazade, member of the Parliament of Azerbaijan, tells the Jerusalem Post: “Our region has a lot of challenges. Israel and Azerbaijan are fighting against international terror, working together for security, peace and prosperity in the region.”

He calls the countries’ relationship “strategic” and says they are also linked on modern technologies and information sharing.

Israel and Azerbaijan seem strange bedfellows on the surface, given Azerbaijan’s Shiite Muslim majority and the fact it is bordered by some of Israel’s most odious enemies: Georgia and Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Armenia to the southwest and west. A small part also borders Turkey to the northwest. Yet over the last five years, the countries have found themselves as lone and often equally misunderstood voices of democracy, equality and peace in a tumultuous foreign policy landscape.

The West’s Double Standard

Both Israel and Azerbaijan have been recent targets of what sources would consider oft unwarranted criticism by Western media and a cold shoulder by the White House. Though Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East, the White House has continued to publically sour relations with the Jewish state.

The first strains in the U.S.-Israel relationship appeared rooted in a petty personality conflict between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But recent exchanges over the Iranian nuclear deal have peaked frustration on both sides. While Netanyahu calls the deal “a bad deal” that would not stop Tehran from getting nuclear weapons — but would rather pave its way to getting lots of them and leave the Jewish State in grave peril, Obama has threatened Congress to push it through.

Similarly, there has been increasing frustration over the last five years by Azeri leaders at the incessant an unwarranted depiction of Azerbaijan by U.S. administration leaders as an autocratic, heavy-handed nation, says Mollazade.

“We need support and understanding from the U.S.,” he explains. “Sometimes in the U.S., a politician is linked to the Armenian community or doesn’t understand the importance for the U.S. of peace and stability in our region.”

Azerbaijan is the only Muslim-majority country that has been consistent and persistent in its openness to democratic values, women and the West. Moreover, in a somewhat similar vain to the situation vis-à-vis Israel and its stance on Iranian nuclear proliferation, the West’s double standard on the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan has left the country’s leaders exasperated.

For more than 20 years, Armenia has waged an ongoing, illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other adjacent regions of Azerbaijan – in violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Nagorno-Karabakh and these other districts have historically belonged to Azerbaijan and have been recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan by the international community. Yet, they have remained under Armenian occupation for more than two decades, since 1992. Following a violent and bloody conflict, Armenia occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan (including the noted areas) and plunged the south Caucuses region into an ever-lingering conflict.
While the U.S. has come out strongly in promotion of the principle of international integrity in the case of Kiev, rightly supporting the Kiev regime against the Russian-backed separatist aggression of Ukraine, it has failed to offer similar support to its ally in the Caucus region. In fact, the U.S. basically winked at Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory, despite Armenia already falling into Russian orbit, notes Gut.
Favoring a ‘friend of a foe’ mentality, Gut says the West is jeopardizing its own interests by treating Armenia as a favorite over Azerbaijan; Armenia gains courage from this to push further knowing there will be no consequences.
In May, The Forward published an op-ed by an Armenian-Israeli calling on Israel to act similarly to the U.S. by looking for a friend in Armenia as opposed to Azerbaijan. Gut laughs at such an idea.

“Good relations start with the human dimension,” Gut says. “There are 30,000 Jews still living in Azerbaijan and another 70,000 who made aliyah to Israel. In Armenia, there are less than 100 Jews and they are trying to get out.”

He continues: “It is the human bridge that solidifies the Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship. In Armenia, there is no one to talk to.”

Multi-Culturalism

The belief that Jews, Muslims and Christians should live side-by-side in peace is also one that is unique outside of Western culture to Azerbaijan and Israel. Polls by the Israel Democracy Institute generally show that democracy and religious are of close to equal importance to the majority of Israelis. Rafael Harpaz, Israel ambassador to Azerbaijan since 2012, says Azerbaijan is a country of “total tolerance.”

Harpaz told the Post Jews are friends with Muslims in Azerbaijan; they celebrate each other’s holidays and share other cultural experiences. Israel sent its largest delegation of Israeli athletes ever this year – 142 athletes and coaches — to the European games, which were hosted by Azerbaijan. When the Israeli Philharmonic comes to Azerbaijan, it plays before a packed house.

In February 2015, members of Los Angeles-based Sinai Temple donated a sefer Torah to the Mountainous Jewish Community of Azerbaijan. In attendance at the acceptance ceremony, according to Harpaz, were a 400-people delegation from Azerbaijan, including Gunduz Ismayilov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Religious Institutions; Evda Abramov, Jewish Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament; Milikh Yevdayev, head of Azerbaijan’s Mountainous Jewish Community; and Rabbi Avraam Yakubov of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in Baku.

Azerbaijan is a birthplace of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. In a May 2015 column published by the Jewish Journal, Yevdayev wrote, “As Jews, we have been living freely, without any persecution or discrimination, in total harmony with our Azerbaijani brothers and sisters for centuries. … In these cynical times, I feel blessed.”

Kamal Makili-Aliyev, a non-Jewish resident of Azerbaijan nearly echoed the words of Yevdayev. He told the Post Jews played a key role in Azerbaijan’s development.

“The Jewish community is a success story,” he says.

Mollazade says this Jewish-Muslim-Christian partnership is also a factor behind the Israel-Azerbaijan strategic relationship.

“In Europe, there is rising anti-Semitism. Islamophobia is growing in the Western world. Azerbaijan and Israel cooperate in this sphere,” he says. “We must defend the important value that all ethnic groups, nations, religions have the ability to live in peace and cooperation.”

He continues: “Our cooperation is not against any country in and of itself. Our cooperation is in defending ourselves against other forces. … It is a partnership for peace.”

Israel opened an embassy in Azerbaijan in 2012. Makili-Aliyev explains it is Azerbaijan’s “geopolitical reality” that keeps his country from reciprocating this action. Nonetheless, he says Azerbaijan knows who its friends are.

“Iran is more supportive of Armenia and not Azerbaijan. And we are more connected to Israel,” says Makili-Aliyev.

Next steps in the ongoing relationship: Increased tourism. Azerbaijan was one of the only countries that continued uninterrupted flights to Israel during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Azerbaijan and Israeli tourism ministries are actively working together to promote visits. Makili-Aliyev says it is now easier than ever to get a visa from Azerbaijan to visit Israel.

“Relations are deepening and widening,” says Harpaz.

Adds Makili-Aliyev: “It’s a good dynamic and I am sure it will continue this way.”

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Armenia is not an "odious enemy" of Israel, but rather compatriots who unfortunately experienced the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.
    Let's call this relationship what it is, you suck their oil and get a border with Iran- they get your killing materiel to promulgate genocide (Sumgait) and nocturnal ax murderers (Savarov). Your article is weighed in the balance and found wanting,indeed, a bunch of bunk.

  2. It would be better for Israel to establish relations with nations, who were given something to the human civilization and culture, than to establish relations with barbaric, nomadic tribes (Azerbayjan,Turkey) which damaged many countries and nations (Russians, Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, Armenians, Kurds). Besides, Israyel as a civil country, must to recognize Armenians’s genocide:

  3. oh don't be so naïve…just only political interest for Israel right now only, the day there is no interest to use your country to solve issue for Israel, you will be out of the “friends list”. Civilized Jews have nothing to do with this though….:) and stop feel pity for yourself rather better get your people educated and civilized…

  4. This appears to be another piece penned by one of many writers who feel that Azerbaijan-Israeli relations must be somehow justified in the eyes of Jewish readers. That would be fine by itself, but in doing so writers such as Ms Jaffe find it necessary to denigrate Armenia, Armenians, and engage in selective deletion of facts especially regarding “tolerance in Azerbaijan”, thus degrading an otherwise informative article into propaganda.

    Let's not just talk, let's look at the facts:

    1) Azerbaijan supplies about 60% of oil to Israel. Fine, Israel needs oil like we all do, but this item was mysteriously missing in Ms Jaffe's article.

    2) Israel also supplies Azerbaijan with its most sophisticated weapons, on the order of billion of dollars worth, specifically used to kill Armenians. The latter has been stated by officials in Baku. This is another fact Ms. Jaffe selectively deleted. Another fact that Ms Jaffe neglected to note is the most sophisticated of these Israeli weapons can be virtually disabled by a simple set of keystrokes from Haifa. So much for real friends!

    3) The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2015 report wrote:

    “Peaceful religious believers, their defenders, and other activists have been detained, fined, and imprisoned on various charges. Based on these concerns, in 2015 USCIRF again places Azerbaijan on Tier 2, where it has been since 2013.” See page 139.

    And on page 141 it states:

    “Peaceful religious believers, their defenders, and other activists have been detained, fined, and imprisoned on various charges. Based on these concerns, in 2015 USCIRF again places Azerbaijan on Tier 2, where it has been since 2013.”

    4) RFE/RL just a few days ago wrote:

    “During a joint press conference with visiting Czech President Milos Zeman in Baku on September 15, Aliyev blasted a recent European Parliament resolution that condemned his country's human rights situation and called for the release of all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists.”

    5) Regarding Armenians, over 250,000 Armenians were violently forced from across the breadth of Azerbaijan by early 1990, leaving only those in Nagorno-Karabakh to fight for the right to live on their land.

    6) Not only have Azerbaijani authorities gone after living Armenians they have destroyed their ancient cemeteries. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study, updated July 17, 2015, clearly showing Azerbaijani authorities having destroyed ancient Armenian cemeteries. The last known major cultural destruction took place in December 2005. See: http://www.aaas.org/page/high-resolution-satellite-imagery-and-destruction-cultural-artifacts-nakhchivan-azerbaijan

    7. Ms. Jaffe talks about Azerbaijan Mountain Jews. In the January 24, 1990 issue of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote in article, _Subdued but Grateful Planeload of Soviet Jews Arrives in Israel_, we find the following quote:

    “Slogans painted on the walls of the capital read: “We give the Armenians one year, the Russians three years, the Jews five years.” The Jews are getting the message.”

    Looks like the clock stopped after the Armenians were expelled in 1990 when oil began flowing. The clock will start up again when Azerbaijan runs out of economically extractable oil within the next five years.

    8) It may be news to the Israeli Foreign Ministry that Georgia, Armenia, and Russia are odious enemies of Israel.

    Ms. Jaffe, there are consequences in writing such a piece, especially when as you write, Azerbaijan is in negotiations with Iran over new rail routes and huge trade agreements.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  5. Ms. Jaffe, quoting Gut is really foolish. Some of us actually read his anti-Armenian drivel. Recently, in the _Times of Israel_, he wrote that Armenians killed thousands of Jews during WWII. This is one of many of Gut's false claims that also attempt index how good Azerbaijan is by the defamation of Armenia and Armenians. It would be like trying to show how good Israelis are by showing how bad Arabs are. Quite foolish don't you think.

    Since you are in that camp as well, perhaps you can explain the following:

    The number of Israeli Righteous Among Nations awards Armenia received is 24, the number for Azerbaijan: 0.

    Does this make "Armenia better than Azerbaijan", no it does not, but it makes you look even more of an unnecessary propagandist.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  6. Mr. Aghayev, the point is these two items are mutually exclusive. When France sells weapons to India, it doesn't provide the world with anti-Pakistani propaganda. Your highlighting the topic of UN resolutions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh is also an unnecessary diversion. Since you brought it up, none of the resolutions condemn Armenia. I suggest you read them first, if you care to respond.

    Mr. Aghayev, is it not possible to write an article about Azerbaijan without either claiming all the region's history as their own or defaming Armenians as bloodthirsty barbarians, simply to portray Azerbaijanis as being better?

    Mr. Gut made many claims including gross charges of antisemitism in Armenia. The leader of Armenia's Jewish community specifically called out for Arye Gut to end his anti-Armenian hatred. Read the first paragraph in http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/open_letter_to_mr._david_harris_executive_director_at_ajc_global_jewish_adv . I suspect Ms Jaffe will be added to the list sent to David Harris.

    Yerevan, Armenia

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