Why Israel-Azerbaijan ties matter to the region - analysis

Ties with Azerbaijan may be controversial for some, but for Israel’s leadership, these are strategic relations that will be invested in.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, during Gantz's visit to Azerbeijan, October 3, 2022. (photo credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, during Gantz's visit to Azerbeijan, October 3, 2022.
(photo credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Azerbaijan at an important time for Israel’s ties to Baku. With Russia’s war in Ukraine waging, and Azerbaijan involved in recent clashes with Armenia, the trip has important regional implications. 

According to Israel’s Defense Ministry, the trip involved a focus on security and policy issues and was aimed at fostering defense cooperation between the countries. The delegation illustrates how much importance Israel puts on this trip.

The Defense Minister was joined by the Ministry’s Director General Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amir Eshel and other officials such as Director of the Policy Dror Shalom, and Military Secretary Brig. Gen. Yaki Dolf. 

Gantz met with the President of Azerbaijan on his trip and he discussed changes in the Middle East region following the signing of the Abraham Accords. He also talked about Israel’s reconciliation with Turkey. These are very important moves that have taken place.

The Abraham Accords are now going into their third year, having just seen a recent anniversary. The Accords were important for Israel in the region because they have become a tremendous building block for Israel to carve out renewed ties in the region. These ties include more public meetings and discussions with Egypt and Jordan; as well as very significant new relations with Morocco.

 The Israeli delegation in Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022.  (credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY) The Israeli delegation in Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022. (credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY)

In July officials from the IDF and the Israel Ministry of Defense Participated in an international Military Exercise in Morocco for the first time. In November 2021 Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with Morocco. In March Gantz met the King of Jordan in Amman. He also met with the foreign minister of the UAE in mid-September.

Why does Azerbaijan matter so much for Israel? 

Azerbaijan-Israel relations are not new and Baku has been a key partner in Israel’s strategy. A recent article by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center argued that “Israel has made Azerbaijan its primary source of energy…As one of the main importers of Azerbaijani oil via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Israel receives over half of its petroleum demands from the Caspian country.”

The article further noted Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation in the military and defense sector. “Due to the long-running armed conflict with Armenia, many advanced Western nations refused to supply Azerbaijan with weaponry. In addition to that, in the past, Türkiye's defense industry could not provide and develop state-of-the-art products. Therefore, in order to break away from its former dependence on Russian-made weapons, Baku turned to Israel for military technology….This partnership has grown to the point that in 2019 Azerbaijan became the second largest customer of the Israeli military industry (17 percent) after India.”

This is a big deal and much of this trade occurs without a lot of attention and headlines. Israel has supplied Azerbaijan with loitering munitions, a type of drone, for many years. These have proved very important for Baku. Azerbaijan has put Israeli drones on parade.

There are also many other aspects to these ties, including the fact that Azerbaijan is located in an important place. It is near Iran and Turkey. Israel-Turkey ties were reduced greatly over the last decade primarily due to Ankara’s negative and hostile view of Israel. But Azerbaijan ties remained strong. This illustrated that they weathered many other changes.

Where does the criticism come from?

However, these ties do not come without a cost. There are critics of the close ties between Baku and Jerusalem. Michael Rubin of AEI has been critical of these ties and argued recently that the ties erode Israel’s moral standing. He also argued in November 2020 that pro-Israel groups should “divorce Azerbaijan.”

There are other critics as well. Armenia has recently suffered losses in clashes with Azerbaijan. They and other supporters of Armenia are critical of Israel’s close relations with Baku. Two writers argued in an op-ed at the ‘Post’ in mid-September that “Israel can use its leverage with Baku to pave a middle path between realpolitik and its values, becoming a stabilizing player in the South Caucasus.”

The critics matter because the US and other countries that are close to Israel, such as France, care about these issues. They may not want to see Israel as a party to a conflict or see Israel’s arms fueling a conflict in the Caucasus. US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was recently in Armenia, for instance. 

The critics aren’t likely to see much movement by Israel in the future. Clearly, Israel-Azerbaijan relations are only growing strong. This does have important contexts on other fronts. It does tie into the work Israel and Turkey are doing to mend ties. Will these ties really be mended? Turkey’s decision to heat up tensions with Greece and Cyprus can affect Israel’s ties with those important countries.

Similarly, energy issues are at work here. A new Israeli agreement with Lebanon being pushed by the US could have ramifications. If that happens it could secure Israel’s off-shore gas fields, but also give Lebanon more access to areas at sea. Who might drill off the coast of Lebanon? Turkey? French companies? Turkey is keen to have Israel route trade via Ankara and Ankara also wants to angle to make Europe more reliant on its energy exports. At the same time, Azerbaijan and Turkey both work with Moscow; and Israel doesn’t want to anger Russia, despite sympathy for Ukraine. 

These are complex issues that many call “geopolitics” or “realism” in foreign policy. For Israel, this isn’t some strategic game, Israel has immediate needs. It wants friends in the region and it wants to grow relations with countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Morocco; as well as warm ties with Jordan and Turkey.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new world order has emerged that is more chaotic. This means there will likely be more conflict in the region and adjacent areas. There could be more clashes between Baku and Yerevan. Turmoil in Iran could spill over and it is only a matter of time before more clashes in Iraq; and in Yemen.

Given all these realities Israel not only wants the ties with Baku to flourish but to cement them publicly. That is partly why Gantz’s trip matters so much. It’s about the public aspect, not just quiet arms trade or energy trade. The government of Lapid and Bennett, along with Gantz’s transformative role as a Defense Minister diplomat, has put emphasis on public meetings and trips; unlike Netanyahu’s administration which preferred fewer public events.

Ties with Azerbaijan may be controversial for some, but for Israel’s leadership, these are strategic relations that will be invested in.