No country in Eurasia has closer or warmer ties with Israel than Azerbaijan. The relationship between the two countries is particularly surprising because Azerbaijan is a majority- Muslim country and because Baku has not yet established a formal diplomatic mission in Israel.
But the reasons for this close relationship lie in the longstanding friendship between Azerbaijanis and Jews living in Azerbaijan. Unlike many cultures, Azerbaijanis have never viewed Jews as foreign or alien. Israelis with roots in Azerbaijan are doing a great deal to foster the emerging economic and even geopolitical cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Relatively few people outside the Azerbaijani or Jewish communities know about the remarkable role that the Jewish community has played in Azerbaijan. The first health minister of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-20 was Jewish, and there were representatives of Jewish groups in parliament. In addition, during the existence of the Republic from 1918 to 1920, Jewish communities published a Caucasian Jewish Bulletin, the Palestine newspaper and a biweekly magazine, Youth of Zion. Moreover, throughout the Soviet period, Jews played a major role in the intellectual, economic and political life of Azerbaijan.
When Azerbaijan recovered its independence, Baku and Jerusalem reached out to each other.
In April 1992, the two governments agreed to exchange diplomats. For some years thereafter, a young Israel Defense Force rifleman represented Israeli interests in Azerbaijan, and subsequently, Eliezer Yotvat was named Israel’s first ambassador in Baku. And at the same time, then and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a short night visit to Baku. In May 2009, president Shimon Peres made an official state visit to Azerbaijan, and foreign minister Avigdor Liberman made a number of official visits to Baku (in February 2010, April 2012 and April 2014). In April 2013, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made a high-level visit to Israel, while in September 2014, Moshe Ya’alon became the first Israel defense minister to visit Azerbaijan.
It is necessary to point out the words of president Peres during his historical visit to Azerbaijan: “I know that the policy of Azerbaijan is of peace, friendship, development but also of independence.
With your unique geographic location, there is no doubt that you already are, and will continue to be, a key country in this part of the world.”
Israel has always been attracted to Azerbaijan, not only because there is no anti-Semitism in that country but also because Baku has repeatedly denounced manifestations of anti-Semitism elsewhere. But if official Baku has not opened an embassy, it has sent numerous official delegations to Israel and welcomed even more Israeli delegations to Baku. It is especially true given the dramatic and continuing expansion of economic ties, with Israel purchasing Azerbaijani petroleum and investing in Azerbaijani agriculture and industry and Azerbaijan interested in expanding ties in ecology, telecommunications, natural resources, and the like. And both sides are promoting educational and cultural exchanges.
Israeli defense companies were also involved in the building of Azerbaijan military industry.
In 2012, a $1.6 billion transaction involving the sale of weapons by Israel Aerospace Industries to Azerbaijan was reported. Over the past three years, Azerbaijan has become an even more significant destination for Israeli arms exports.
Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are a positive, strategic partnership. Azerbaijani-Israeli trade cooperation flourishes and has reached nearly $4b.
Although previously focused on the oil and gas industry, it is now extending to other sectors of the economy. It is necessary to point out that Israel is one of the main buyers of Azerbaijani oil to world markets, but Israel has several more reasons to seek stronger relations with Baku. A significant portion of the oil consumed by Israel (an estimated 40 percent) is imported from Azerbaijan or by way of Azerbaijan through the Baku-Tbilsi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
Post-Soviet Azerbaijan has repeatedly proven that it plays a key and critical role in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. Azerbaijan is the key transit route for the transfer of men and material to and from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan troops stand shoulder to shoulder with Allied troops in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq and Bosnia. Azerbaijan also is a key partner in anti-terrorism intelligence gathering operations with the West.
Azerbaijan also serves as the linchpin for energy diversity and security for Europe and Western markets, as Azerbaijan is not only the major energy hub in the region, but a major producer of oil and natural gas that presents Europe with a non-Russian, non-OPEC and non-Iranian energy alternative. Azerbaijani pipelines, like the BTC (the largest oil pipeline in the world next to America’s Alaskan pipeline) pumps oil from the Caspian Sea through Georgia and to the Mediterranean Sea, terminating in the Turkish port city of Ceyhan.
In addition and, perhaps, more importantly, Azerbaijan and its Western partners have already begun construction on the network of pipelines that will comprise the Southern Gas Corridor, which will transport Azerbaijan’s vast gas reserves directly to Europe, thus alleviating the risk of Russia turning off the heat in the middle of winter for some perceived affront.
The pragmatic approach of Azerbaijan, as a whole, includes religious tolerance, multiculturalism of Azerbaijani society and constructive relations with its neighbors in a region where diplomacy is much more complex than in many other parts of the world. All of these factors played a role in the successful formation of this emerging democracy.
First, Israel wants to show the international community their full loyalty to the Muslim countries, secular and otherwise, that remain friendly to Israel. Azerbaijan plays an important role as a reliable supplier of energy to Israel. In exchange, Azerbaijan needs modern Israeli technology, agriculture knowhow and technology, communications and computer technology and modern weaponry, the list goes on and on.
As an Israeli citizen of Azerbaijani background, I can say proudly that the leadership of Azerbaijan shows a great degree of deference and partnership to the Jewish community. Under the patronage of President Ilham Aliyev two synagogues and the largest Jewish educational center in the South Caucasus have been built. Plans are in place for the first Azerbaijani Jewish museum, which will be the first Jewish museum in the South Caucasus.
If one wonders how the majority Muslim country of Azerbaijan came to such a rich alliance with Israel today, one need look no further than the Red Village, a tiny river conclave in the mountainous region of Quba. There, for centuries, a Jewish community has thrived amid a Muslim population. The ancient town of Krasnaya Sloboda (Quba) in northern Azerbaijan, said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, is the pride of Azerbaijan. In this region, Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis have been living harmoniously for centuries. Despite Armenia’s ethnic cleansing and aggression toward Azerbaijan, which includes occupation of 20% of its territories and one million refugees and internally displaced people, Azerbaijan is a true model of inter-civilizational and interfaith dialogue. Tolerance and multiculturalism are key foundations of the Azerbaijani society. Azerbaijan has made a concerted effort to create and foster the necessary political and social conditions for developing and strengthening the country’s traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance.
Time and again, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that harmony is possible, and issues can be resolved without resorting to violence or strife.
Importantly, President Aliyev has earned the respect of a wide swath of Israeli society for his dedication in this realm and to the Jews of Azerbaijan.
The relationships between Israel and Azerbaijan, and Muslim Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijani Jews, cannot be explained away by simple mutual self-interest. Common values and a shared history permeate the modern relationship. Both countries are enriched by the human connections between them and a determination to live in diverse and religiously tolerant societies. As a citizen of the State of Israel, it is clear to me that the leadership of Azerbaijan has not only incorporated attitudes toward Jews that transcend mere tolerance into its policies, but also into the fabric of its society.
Furthermore, it is evident and clear that Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan have peacefully coexisted as brothers – and have become forever linked through common history and destiny.
The author is a noted expert on the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and the head of the Israeli NGO International Society Projects.