(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli trade with Azerbaijan holds important strategic and economic advantages for both countries, and for the West as a whole. Recent voices in Israel criticizing Azerbaijan’s internal affairs need to understand the full complexity of this relationship.
In the past two months, a number of articles were published in leading Israeli news sources that called for a re-examination of Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, sparking headlines in both Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia.
In late October, Yair Auron wrote in Haaretz
that the government of Israel should stop selling weapons to Azerbaijan, claiming it is committing genocide against Armenians and comparing it to Nazi Germany. A more recent article by Anshel Pfeffer in the same paper claimed that Azerbaijan is “abandoning the West” due to the publicized arrest of an Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and suggested that Israel’s alliance with Azerbaijan is “shaky.” A similar article published this week by Yossi Melman in The Jerusalem Post
termed the Israeli- Azerbaijani relationship “problematic” due to issues of human rights abuse and freedom of the press in Azerbaijan.
Auron’s gross misrepresentation of Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia, along with Pfeffer and Melman’s narrow criticism of human rights issues in Azerbaijan, signifies a misunderstanding not only of the economic and strategic significance that the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship holds for both sides, but also of this relationship’s significance to the further advancement of Western values in the region.
The practical and material benefits of the Israeli-Azerbaijani ties are clear to many. In the past few years alone, Israel has reportedly sold over $1.6 billion worth of military equipment to Azerbaijan, consisting mostly of aerial surveillance technology (drones) and anti-aircraft defense systems. This has helped advance and modernize the Azerbaijani military, which is still in the grips of the frozen conflict with neighboring Armenia. Trade of other goods between the two countries is on the rise and is modestly assessed to be worth around $125 million annually.
An even more important aspect to this relationship is that of energy.
Many Israelis, plagued by the memory of the Arab oil embargo against Israel in 1973, are not at all aware that over 40 percent of their oil imports stem from Azerbaijan – a predominantly Muslim Shi’ite state. For a country completely disconnected from its neighbors’ infrastructure, this oil trade serves as an important lifeline for Israeli energy security concerns. Israel is Azerbaijan’s sixth largest customer for oil, with exports reaching over $2.5b. a year in revenue.
In the near future, Azerbaijan is also poised to play an important role in Europe’s energy market, as a new major gas pipeline (the “Southern Gas Corridor”) is in the works to transport natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah-Deniz field in the Caspian Sea to Italy. Israel has the opportunity to potentially tap into that line and sell its own natural gas to European markets from its offshore Leviathan field.
In a much broader strategic view, Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim- majority states that actively cooperate and trade with Israel, and one of its few friends in the region. This was most apparent during Israel’s recent operation in Gaza, when Azerbaijan avoided criticizing Israel or holding back oil exports despite pressure from other Muslim countries to do so. This friendship has even sparked unconfirmed reports regarding Azerbaijan’s willingness to play a logistical role in a potential Israeli air-strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. In Iran itself, roughly a third of the population are ethnic Azerbaijanis, a fact that influences the Iranian regime’s stability and encourages Israel to cooperate with Azerbaijan even more.
Yet while these material benefits are understood by many, other important aspects are mostly overlooked. Azerbaijan is a culturally unique state in the region. Though it is has a predominantly Shi’ite-led government, it is considered a secular state that offers freedom of religion to its citizens and a complete separation of religion and state. It is in fact one of the few places where Jews have never been persecuted for their faith, with some Jewish communities still active in the north of the country. Azerbaijan also actively promotes and protects women’s rights, and was one of the first countries in the world to give equal voting rights to women (even before the US and most of Europe). The current Azerbaijani government is also known to have a strong preference toward the West, a fact which has often put it on a collision course with Russia.
Azerbaijan is still often criticized for its treatment of political prisoners and its handling of human rights issues and freedom of the press. Yet it is precisely this kind of country that Israel, and the West as a whole, should have a vested interest in furthering the social and economic development of by protecting it from radical elements active both within it and abroad.
The advancement of religious rights and property rights in Azerbaijan in the past decade should be seen as a testament to how closer links with the West help promote desired values in Azerbaijan.
This is especially apparent when comparing Azerbaijan with other, post-soviet Muslim countries in the region that do not share these links with the West.
Taking these considerations into account, it is short-sighted to view the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship through a purely economic lens, or to call for its end. Those who understand the full complexity of the Jerusalem-Baku line may wish to further promote this rare friendship in a generally hostile region for Israel, rather than impede it.The author is a doctoral candidate at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa in Israel, specializing in energy politics in the Caspian Sea and the Middle East. He holds a government scholarship from the Ministry of Natural Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources and the President’s Scholarship from the University of Haifa. He has also received a diploma in energy studies from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA) in Baku, Azerbaijan.