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After a month and a half of fierce fighting over Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-occupied districts, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to a final ceasefire on November 10 (Daily Sabah, November 10). The deal leaves all areas Azerbaijani forces recaptured under Baku’s control. Azerbaijan’s decisive battlefield victories owe to multiple factors (see EDM, October 8, 19, 29, November 3), but among them was use of advanced weaponry purchased from Israel as well as the country’s political support to Baku.
On October 25, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, George Deek, visited Ganja city to offer condolences to civilian victims of Armenian rocket attacks targeting areas beyond the Karabakh conflict zone. Simultaneously, Israel delivered humanitarian aid, including medical equipment, to Azerbaijan. Notably, the only other country that made the same gesture was Turkey, whose relationship with Azerbaijan is formulated as “one nation, two states” (Ynetnews.com, Arminfo.am, October 25).
Armenia, in turn, rejected Israel’s offers of humanitarian aid. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan angrily declared, “I propose that Israel should send that aid to the mercenaries and to the terrorists as the logical continuation of its activities.” He baselessly (see EDM October 13) accused Israel of siding with “mercenaries, Islamic terrorists, and Turkey” and “active engagement in the [Karabakh] conflict” (Jerusalem Post  , November 3).
The rebuke coming out of Yerevan stemmed in large part from Israel’s years-long military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan as well as refusal to halt arms exports to Baku amidst the war. In protest, Armenia recalled its ambassador to Israel on October 1, after just two weeks of having opened the embassy (Haaretz, October 1). Unlike Turkey, Israel tends not to openly advertise its military supplies to Azerbaijan. Yet even as early as 2016, it was predictable that Israeli weapons exports would change the balance of power in the region by squeezing Russia out of Azerbaijan’s arms market, leaving Moscow with a dilemma of having to choose a side—Armenia or Azerbaijan (see EDM, January 30, 2017). Incidentally, it was the attempt to avoid such a dilemma that compelled Moscow’s noticeably neutral stance in the recent clashes (see EDM, October 8, 2020). And while advanced Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) received the most attention this time around, it was Israeli drones that heralded this technology’s battlefield superiority and effectiveness to Baku during the April 2016 Four-Day War (see EDM, January 30, 2017, June 14, 2018, October 15, 2020). This was confirmed by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in his recent interview to German ARD TV (President.az, October 29, 2020).
Last month, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a motion to ban arms sales to Azerbaijan, and former Israeli president Dalia Itzik sent a letter of support to Aliyev amidst the fighting in Karabakh (Jerusalem Post, President.az, October 13). It is worth emphasizing that these Israeli gestures occurred in spite of Baku’s condemnation (in line with Ankara’s and Tehran’s position) of the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (see EDM, May 14, 2018) as well as refraining from opening up an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel. Nonetheless, regular direct Baku–Tel-Aviv flights have been operating for many years. And in May 2020, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin openly asked his Azerbaijani counterpart to open the embassy soon, echoing the same call from Ambassador Deek back in January (APA, January 24; President.az, June 16). Such gestures showcase the significance Israel clearly attaches to Azerbaijan. Thus, last month’s humanitarian aid from Israel to Ganja was so notable not for its material value but rather the politics and symbolism it carried. Three dimensions of the Azerbaijani identity—Muslim, Turkic and Shia—are essential to explaining this rapport.
First, Azerbaijan is attractive to Israel as a possible model for other Muslim countries. Illustratively, during his visit to Baku in 2016, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrayed Azerbaijani-Israeli relations as exemplifying “what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere” (Mfa.gov.il, December 13, 2016) Moreover, Jewish-American Rabbi Mark Schneier, the president of the Washington-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, told the Baku Intercultural Forum in 2019 that improving attitudes to and relations with Jews and Israel in Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and others, “is a direct result of Azerbaijan” (YouTube, May 8, 2019).
Considering Israel’s volatile relations with Turkey, Turkic Azerbaijan can serve as a potential conduit for normalizing the diplomatic relationship with Ankara. Incidentally, Israel officially offered assistance to Turkey following the earthquake that hit the Turkish city of Izmir on October 30 (Israel21c.org, November 2; Jerusalem Post, October 29).
The Shia dimension is perhaps the most significant consideration for Israel. Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority nation. And Shia Iran is home to somewhere around 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis—the second largest group after Persians. Unlike in 1992–1993, today, the government in Baku harbors no intentions of encouraging nationalism among Iran’s Azerbaijanis, who at least twice outnumber the population of the titular republic north of the Aras River. Nonetheless, many of them still look to Azerbaijan as their kin nation and ethnic-religious brethren. In October, Azerbaijan finally retook full control of its border with Iran, including the controversial Khudaferin hydro-power project located there (see EDM, June 24). In an interesting nuance, the Azerbaijani president congratulated both “the peoples of Azerbaijan and Iran” via his Twitter account on that occasion (Twitter.com/presidentaz, October 22).
Iranian Azerbaijanis cheered advancing Azerbaijani soldiers by saluting and singing to them from across the river, referring to Azerbaijan as their “homeland” and its armed forces as “our” army (YouTube, Konkret.az, October 19; Twitter.com/DanielKRad, October 25). Considering the meaningful support Israel has been providing to Azerbaijan, such episodes certainly help shed light on Tehran’s nervousness in response to Azerbaijani military advances in Karabakh (see EDM, October 21, 22, November 5; Yjc.ir, Tasnimnews.com, October 25, 30).
Several members of the Azerbaijani parliament called on their government to open an embassy in Israel after footage appeared that seemed to show military cargoes transited to Armenia via Iran (see EDM, October 21). Nonetheless, another lawmaker ended up being reprimanded by the parliament’s disciplinary commission for statements “contradicting the spirit of friendship with Iran” after he criticized the Iranian Supreme Leader’s allusion to the presence of “terrorists” purportedly fighting on the Azerbaijani side (Azertag.az, November 7; Axar.az, September 30). The Iranian-Azerbaijani relationship thus remains complicated. And yet, the Israeli government hopes that, over the long term, the good will it has built up with Azerbaijan will be noticed by the large Azerbaijani minority inside Iran, eventually reversing the negative portrayal or perceptions of Israel within the Islamic Republic.