“This is an historic visit,” President Shimon Peres said on Monday, when greeting Elmar Mammadyarov, who is the first foreign minister of Azerbaijan to visit Israel, even though diplomatic relations between the two countries were established exactly 21 years ago.

By contrast, Peres visited Azerbaijan in June 2009 to strengthen and expand strategic and political ties between Israel and the largest country in the Southern Caucasus region; and last year MK Avigdor Liberman, in his capacity as Israel’s foreign minister, also visited Azerbaijan, at which time he met with the nation’s leaders, including Mammadyarov, who has been in office since 2004.

Mammadyarov arrived with a sizable delegation, including five members of the Jewish community. In alluding to the old joke that “when there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” he said that he had brought five Jews representing eight organizations.

His delegation also included a member of parliament.

Peres said that Mammadyarov’s visit officially promotes the good relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.

Mammadyarov conveyed the regards of President Ilham Heydar to Peres, who said that not only did he know the present president of Azerbaijan, but he also knew his father, Heydar Aliyev, who was president from 1993 to 2003.

Peres added that he admired both, and described Aliyev as “a very special leader” who did everything possible to ensure that Azerbaijan would become a nation in its own right and not submissive to anyone else.

He said that both father and son had shown “outstanding character and courage.”

Peres expressed his confidence that Azerbaijan would become a major player in its region, and forecast that it would have a great future, based both on its human wealth and its natural resources, particularly as it is now developing in advanced areas of science and technology.

Even though Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, the history of its Jewish population goes back for many centuries, and the Jews of Azerbaijan have never experienced persecution.

Indeed, during the Second World War, Azerbaijan was a haven to those European Jews who were able to get there.

Peres commented on the good relations between the political establishment and the Jews of Azerbaijan.

Trade between Israel and Azerbaijan, which is one of Israel’s principal oil suppliers, has grown to something in the realm of $125 million, rising to $4 billion with the inclusion of energy, and may increase substantially, as discussions between Mammadyarov and the Israeli leadership will include energy and trade relations in addition to political, economic, scientific and technological cooperation.

Noting commonalities between the two countries, Peres said that Azerbaijan takes a clear stand against terror and war and wants to introduce peace in a troubled area that is not yet free from terror and violence.

In this context, Peres emphasized that Iran – which is one of Azerbaijan’s neighbors – is funding terror, developing nuclear weapons and casting a heavy shadow over the entire Middle East.

Peres commended Azerbaijan for its policy of peace, independence and culture.

Mammadyarov declared his country to be independent and prosperous, with a multi-cultural society.

The government is sensitive in formulating policy, he said, and believes firmly in goodneighbor relations.

However, it continues to have problems with Armenia with regard to “the notorious conflict and occupation of our territory.”

Nonetheless, Azerbaijan continues to abide by United Nations resolution 822, unanimously adopted on April 30, 1993, which urged Azerbaijan and Armenia to cease hostilities, resume negotiations and bring an end to the conflict.

Mammadyarov said he hoped that the Armenians realized that a good neighborhood is not based on occupation.

“One of the reasons for our good relations with Israel is that you recognize our problems,” he said.

There are approximately 40,000 people of Azerbaijani origin living in Israel while maintaining close ties with the country of their birth, said Mammadyarov, who credited them with helping to expand business opportunities in both countries.

Azerbaijan is interested in expanding its economic relations with Israel, he said, to which Peres responded that cooperation in science and technology looks very promising.

Peres also remarked that while it was good to have a policy of good neighbors, “the neighbors need to have that policy too.”

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