Azerbaijan – Israel Relations: Strategic Partnership or Furtive Intimacy?
This article focuses on political, strategic and economic relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. Since the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, it has given the importance to enhance bilateral relations with the world’s leading states to prevent Russian and Iranian influence. Israel is one of them. Israel and Azerbaijan have developed a close relationship through strategic partnerships. On the other hand, this relationship was interpreted as furtive intimacy against national security of Iran. The main of this article is to find driving forces behind the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.
In recent years, the rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Israel can be understood as a remarkable situation because they differ from each other in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture, economic development etc. Moreover, Azerbaijan is a member of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference), which claims “to coordinate action to safeguard the Holy Places, to support the struggle of the Palestinian people and assist them in recovering their rights and liberating their occupied territories”.Despite all these controversies, they succeed to establish strategic cooperation in the fields of trade and security, but it disturbs the Islamic Republic of Iran (southern neighbour of Azerbaijan). Thus, driving forces behind the cooperation between Azerbaijan-Israel are essential to reach an idea about the future of the region’s dynamics.
Grounds of Azerbaijan-Israel Relations
When Azerbaijan regained independence in 1991, it started to seek political, economic and strategic partners. Firstly, Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations with Turkey and Iran. Then, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel started to develop because throughout history Azerbaijan has become home for some Jews communities such as Mountain, Ashkenazi, Georgian and Bukharian Jews etc. Currently, 11,000 Jews are living primarily in Baku, Sumqay?t, Oguz, and Quba in Azerbaijan. Therefore, Israel opened an embassy in Baku in 1993 and Eliezer Yotvat was appointed to Azerbaijan as Israel’s first ambassador, but Azerbaijan has not yet fulfilled its task to open an embassy in Israel. Thus, they do not establish full diplomatic relations.
The reason of that as mentioned before, Azerbaijan is a member of OIC and if it opens a mission in Israel, it might get negative reaction from predominantly Muslim countries. However, Turkey is also member of OIC, it has an embassy in Tel Aviv. Thus, the main concern of Azerbaijan might be that Azerbaijan needs extra U.N votes for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict so it does not want to lose the supports of Muslim countries. Another reason might be the proximity to Iran and the pressures coming from Tehran. Azerbaijan shares historical and religious ties with predominantly Shi’ite Iran. Far more ethnic Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan. However, Iran has an embassy in Armenia, which occupied nearly 20% of Azerbaijan territory as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and those territories are still under the control of Armenia. The reasons of why Azerbaijan does not have a mission in Israel is very complicated.
Apart from the Jewish minority, there are also another important reasons for the development of relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. From the first time, the rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Israel has grounded rational reasons, which are based on diplomacy, trade and security. 
Since its independence, the main priorities of Azerbaijan foreign policy are to protect independence and territorial integrity. Thus, the relationship with Israel has a strategic importance due to strong impact of Israel lobby on USA. Through the Israel-American lobby, Azerbaijan has tried to ensure playing the balancing role of USA in the region toward impacts of Russia and Iran; on the other side, it has aimed to take the edge off Armenian-American lobby’s power which is very effective in decision-making processes in Washington. The efficiency of Armenian-American lobby was witnessed via Amendment 907 to the Freedom Support Act, which was passed on October 24, 1992 in order to provide financial and technical assistance to newly independent former Soviet Union republics. However, Azerbaijan did not benefit from this assistance due to Amendment 907 because Armenian lobby in USA introduced Azerbaijan as an aggressor state owing to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the other hand, Israel showed its support to Azerbaijan and Israel-American lobby made a certain contribution in the waving process of Amendment 907, which is crucial for the prestige of Azerbaijan toward international community.
In terms of economic relations, energy is the main driving force for the relationship between Azerbaijan-Israel. Energy policy of Azerbaijan is based on diversification. The establishment of economic relations with Israel is derived from this strategy. After the independence of Azerbaijan, Israel started to import Azerbaijani oil. In 2002, Israel became Azerbaijan’s largest importer of oil after Italy. With the construction of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline in 2005, cooperation has increased significantly. Moreover, Israel declared its willingness for the extension of BTC pipeline to its Red Sea Port in Eilat for transferring of Azerbaijani oil to Indian, Japan and South Korean markets through Israel. Currently, Israel is one of the most important clients of Azerbaijani oil and it receives 25% of its crude oil supply from Azerbaijan through the BTC pipeline. It is possible to say that Israel’s energy security depends on Azerbaijan. The volume of trade between Azerbaijan- Israel is almost 4 billion dollars and energy constitutes the main proportion of it. Furthermore, Israel is interested in importing more oil and gas from Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries. The main aim of the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Azerbaijan in 2009 was to expand cooperation between Azerbaijan-Israel in the areas of security, diplomacy and economy. They also signed several agreements related to culture, education, science, agriculture etc.
In addition to oil trade, Israeli businessmen have invested in the areas of agriculture, technology, and telecommunication. Strauss ice cream, Maccabee beer, cell phones and other Israeli imports appeared in Azerbaijan market in mid-1990s. An Israeli telecommunication company, Bezeq, bought a large share of the national telephone operating system in 1994. Moreover, in 2000, Modcom System Ltd., an Israeli-origin supplier of high technology to energy industry, opened an office in Azerbaijan. Thus, economic cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan has grown gradually. According to UN statistics, the exports of Azerbaijan to Israel have increased from US$2 million to $323 million between 1997-2004.
On the other hand, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel in the context of security is based on arms trade and cooperation in security intelligence. The unofficial visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku in 1997 was the starting point for defence cooperation. With this visit, Israel became a provider of artillery, antitank, and anti-infantry weapons to Azerbaijan and played crucial role for modernizing Azerbaijan military. In time, cooperation in this field has increased because, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and their abortive negotiations for 20 years increase the possibility of war, so Azerbaijani army necessitates to equip with modern weaponry. Israel is a significant partner in arms trade because most of Western countries apply blockade to sell weaponry to Azerbaijan due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan buys weapons from Russia and it does not want to depend Russia merely. For these reasons, in order to diversify its arms trade, Israel is a reasonable partner who has modern air defence system and pilotless aircraft. The visit of Shimon Peres to Azerbaijan in 2009 extended relations in this field. Then, in 2012, Azerbaijan and Israel signed a deal which costs 1.6 billion dollars. This deal shows us the significance of cooperation between them in security field.
Another important reason for strategic partnership with Azerbaijan in terms of Israel, and vice versa, is their mutual fear and distrust of Iran. From the beginning, the cornerstone of Israel foreign policy is to increase cooperation with non-Arabian but predominantly Muslim countries for stamping its anti-Muslim image out. In this respect, Israel deepened its relationship with Iran in times of Shah and with Turkey in 1990s. However, after the Islamic revolution, Iran transformed to a threat against Israel. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited to Baku in 1997, he claimed three-sided cooperation among Israel, Turkey and Azerbaijan to cut down Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Iran. Thus, the relations among them have gradually increased. However, this close cooperation led to dissatisfaction of Iran and Armenia. Iran’s state radio criticized this visit and declared that “Baku has playing a dangerous game by receiving the Zionist regime’s expansionist prime minister. By doing this it has destabilized its own ties with Islamic states in the region and the world.” This cooperation has been regarded as furtive intimacy by themso, the regional cooperation between Iran and Armenia has rapidly expanded and even today they have close relations on trade, energy and transportation. Unlike Iran, Israel has taken sides with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and it is crucial strategic partner for Azerbaijan. Thus having a good relationship with Israel is more important than Iran.
Additionally, after the 9/11 events, the relations among Iran, Israel and USA got tensed up due to nuclear programme of Iran. When Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, Iran claimed that MOSSAD’s intelligences were responsible for these assassinations , and it accused Azerbaijani officials to assist Israeli intelligence. It shows that Iran is more suspicious and anxious about warm relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.
In spite of Iran’s opposition, the stronger ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have been increasing day by day. Through strategic partnership, Azerbaijan has gained a strong partner in the political, military, and technology areas. For Israel, Jewish minority in Azerbaijan, energy resources of Azerbaijan and security concerns of Israel are influential. These are the main driving forces behind the non-diplomatic but strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel. Azerbaijan is following balance policy for its relations with Israel and Iran. This is quite rational policy in terms of dynamics and future of this region.
By Selma Aky?ld?z
(Selma Aky?ld?z is a B.A. student in International Relations and Political Science at Marmara University, Turkey. Her past work includes studies of Turkish-Azerbaijani relationship. She is currently in an exchange program at Qafqaz University, Azerbaijan.)
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