But Liberman’s interest in Azerbaijan, and his understanding of its strategic significance for Israel, predated even his years in the Foreign Ministry.
Back in the days when Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were not political adversaries but, rather, allies and he served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term in office, he was instrumental in arranging a brief stopover in Baku for Netanyahu in 1996 on the way back home to Israel from Southeast Asia – the first ever by an Israeli prime minister.
Azerbaijan, he said in an interview, “sits at the meeting point of three empires – the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires.”
That location makes the country extremely strategic for all the major regional players. Its significance for Israel becomes even greater when considering that it borders Iran.
“It is important that we have a [friendly] state in that location, a Muslim state, modern and secular,” said Liberman, who visited the country three times as foreign minister and once as defense minister.
Perhaps because of a special affinity he feels to Azerbaijan as a result of being a key architect in building the relations between Jerusalem and Baku, Liberman was eager to do something Wednesday that Foreign Ministry officials pointedly have refrained from doing for some time: talk on record about the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict, a conflict that exploded this week with fierce fighting in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.
While the Foreign Ministry has made no comment on the conflict that threatens to suck in other regional powers such as Turkey, Russia and Iran – a report in The Guardian on Thursday said that three Syrian fighters believed to be contractors for Turkish security companies helping Azerbaijan were killed in the fighting – Liberman said that Israel’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh has remained consistent for the last 25 years: it respects Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH, Liberman said, launching into a brief history lesson, was historically a part of Azerbaijan, including during the period of the Russian tsars and the Communist Soviet Union.
The area always had an Armenian minority, and under the Soviets it was an autonomous region inside Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union began its process of dissolving, protests and then riots began there in 1988 and turned into a full-blown war in 1991, a war that ended three years later with the Armenians occupying some 20% of Azerbaijan territory. During that war, the Armenians added an additional seven other regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the region declared itself an independent state, which no one has recognized.
Efforts since that war to resolve the conflict peacefully have failed, with flare-ups there or at other parts of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border breaking out periodically, the last time in July.
Because of all the other problems the world is facing, said Liberman, “this issue was pushed to the side, nobody dealt with it, but – as always – when no one deals with a problem, it bursts out.”
Liberman said that Israel’s traditional position of supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity stems from history and international law. He also points to the long history of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan – a community dating back some 2,500 years – as well as the tolerance toward Jews in the country that existed even during the days of the Soviets, as reasons for the close relationship that has developed between the two countries.
While Liberman refrained from making recommendations to the Foreign Ministry about whether it should be more publicly supportive of the Azerbaijan, he said “it is clear on whose side we are.”
Israel has critical strategic relations with Azerbaijan – primarily because of its geography on the border of Iran, but also because it supplies Israel with an estimated 40% of its oil needs and is one of the leading purchasers of Israeli arms in the world. Israel also has cordial relations with Armenia, which earlier this year sent its first ambassador to Israel to open up a new embassy in Tel Aviv. Azerbaijan, by contrast, does not have an embassy here, though Israel has one in Baku.
A 2009 US diplomatic cable – made public by Wikileaks – that was sent by Washington’s political/economic counselor in its embassy in Baku at the time, Rob Gaverick, sums up Israel’s interests well: “Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are based strongly on pragmatism and a keen appreciation of priorities. Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country, and as a market for military hardware.” Those interests, in the intervening 11 years, have only gotten stronger.
MOST REPORTS on the current fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh state rather perfunctorily that Turkey strongly backs Azerbaijan, while Russia supports Armenia. Cast in that light, Turkey and Russia could be on a collision course.
But Liberman takes issue with that narrative. Armenia is most strongly backed by Iran, not Russia, he averred. He added that Moscow has good ties with Azerbaijan, along with its strong ties with Armenia, and that it has an interest in balancing those relations for domestic reasons, since it has large Azerbaijani and Armenian populations inside Russia to consider.
“The Russians don’t support the Armenians,” he said, “they tried to be mediators, and the Armenians rejected their offer. The Iranians are the strong supporters of the Armenians. The relationship between them is very strong and close.”
Liberman pointed out that Armenia is a landlocked country, very heavily dependent on neighboring Iran for trade and as an outlet to the Caspian Sea.
But if Liberman questions the premise that Russia strongly supports Armenia in this conflict, he does not have any doubts about Turkish support for Azerbaijan, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan loudly pushing Azerbaijan to take an aggressive position.
What that means, therefore, is that if Israel supports Azerbaijan, it would mean siding with Turkey, whose government is strongly anti-Israel.
“We don’t need to work together [with the Turks],” Liberman said. “But we also don’t need to be sorry for even a minute that there is a disagreement between Iran and Turkey – I don’t think that is bad for us. To be politically correct, we don’t have to feel bad about any disagreement between Turkey and Iran.” Regarding reports that Turkey may try to throw a wrench in the strong Azerbaijan-Israel ties, including trying to move in on Israel’s weapons sales to the country, Liberman replied: “It is impossible to push us out; that is dependent on us. We can offer things [to Azerbaijan] that no one else can.” Iran, which has professed that it wants to see the conflict calmed down, has an interest in tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Liberman said.
Azerbaijanis are a Turkic people – though they are Shia Muslims, while the Turks are Sunni – whose language is very close to Turkish. Azerbaijanis also make up some 25% of the population of Iran.
The relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan is tense, Liberman said, as the Iranians would like to export their Shia revolution to Azerbaijan, which is a modern, secular state.
The Iranians have an interest in fanning the flames as a way of possibly weakening the current regime in Baku. “The Iranians are not happy with the situation in Azerbaijan, and would like to see a regime of ayatollahs there. To be politically correct, just say they are not satisfied with the present regime in Azerbaijan.” The South Caucasus region, Liberman said, is a highly complex area with many conflicting interests.
“The Russians cannot be apathetic to what’s happening there, the Turks want to be very active in the region, all the powers – regional and world – are looking at this now. Russia is looking because it is on their doorstep, the Turks are looking, the Iranians are looking, the French are looking because they traditionally see themselves as the sponsors of Armenia – there is a very big Armenian community in France. There is a also a big Armenian community in the United States, with a great deal of influence on Capitol Hill. It is not a simple mix.
Israel’s official line is to try to stay publicly as far away from that mix as it can. But Liberman said that while Jerusalem should say little, it is very much in Israel’s interest for its position to be made clear.
“Azerbaijan is our friend, and friendship is tested in times of crisis,” he said. “I recommend very strongly that we preserve our friendship with Azerbaijan.”