Do clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan matter to Israel? - analysis

With new peace deals in the Gulf and discussions about what countries might be next to recognize Israel, the Caucuses seem far away.

Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020 (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
In recent months, there have been increasing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In general, these tensions have appeared peripheral to Israel’s concerns.
With new peace deals in the Gulf and discussions about what countries might be next to recognize Israel, the Caucasus seems far away. However, it would be a mistake to think that this brewing conflict is not of great concern to Israel, because of wider strategic ramifications and the Israeli relationship with the countries involved. This is particularly true because the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is potentially a crossroads for Turkey, Russia and Iran and their rising roles in the Middle East.
Israel and Azerbaijan have had close connections for many years. One of Israel’s most talented diplomats, George Deek, is Israel’s new ambassador to Azerbaijan. In addition, there is trade with Baku, including defense trade.
Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and it has been one of the most open to Israel and genuinely interested in wider and warmer relations over the years.
However, those relations are complex. Israel has no historical interest in the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is similar to Israel’s view of the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia and Ukraine.
In both instances, there are separatist or breakaway areas, disputed areas such as Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh, and ancient Jewish connections.
However, these conflicts have roots generally in the Soviet era, when borders were drawn and redrawn. Israel prefers positive relations with Ukraine and Russia, as well as with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Yet, larger countries like Russia that have a role in Syria are of greater long-term importance on issues relating to the Middle East. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has generally been good at navigating these complexities, meeting with both sides.
WHEN IT comes to Azerbaijan, the frequency of important visits has sketched out the importance that the relationship has to both sides.
Azerbaijan’s foreign minister came to Israel in 2013 and its defense minister came in 2017. Israel’s then foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, went to Azerbaijan in 2018; Netanyahu was in Baku in 2016.
In 2017, then regional cooperation minister Tzachi Hanegbi went to Armenia and its foreign minister came to Israel. Armenia said it would open an embassy in Israel in 2019.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is ostensibly over a disputed area claimed by both sides, a self-declared Armenian republic in Nagorno-Karabakh, similar to the republics in Donbass that were declared after the conflict in 2014.
It is also similar to the republics like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are largely unrecognized. The Nagorno-Karabakh republic of Artsakh was declared in 1991.
In some ways, this conflict is a frozen version of the problems inherent in the new world order of the 1990s, when many countries were fighting over old colonial and Cold War boundaries and many new states were declared but left unrecognized.
The same is true of Somaliland, for instance, which should be a recognized state but is forcibly tethered to the failures in Mogadishu.
REGARDLESS OF the problems of history, the current issue on the ground is clear. A rising Azerbaijan would like to show its strength in the face of continued clashes with Armenia or “Armenian-backed separatists.” Azerbaijan has increased investment – and it has new support from Ankara.
The issue for Israel is that Turkey is one of the most hostile states to it in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran compete to be the most anti-Israel, largely because of Turkey’s current ruling party, which is riding a wave of nationalism and militarism designed to distract from economic problems at home.
Turkey wants to sell military equipment, such as drones, to show off its potential. Iran also wants to play a role.
Iran sent forces to participate in Caucasus 2020 military drills earlier this month alongside Russia, Armenia, Myanmar, Pakistan and China.
This appears to show that Armenia, Iran and Russia are closer allies, even though Iran and Azerbaijan want to boost trade ties. Ankara would like to increase its role with Baku.
That potentially could supplant or harm Israel’s relations there depending on how Ankara’s efforts play out. For instance, in the past Israel has sold drones to Azerbaijan.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Israel’s Elbit Systems had sold the SkyStriker drone to Azerbaijan. Turkey would like to offer its Bayraktar and other drones to Baku as well. Is this competition, or could the different capabilities of Israel and Turkey mesh well?
Turkey’s drone industry is a recent phenomenon, whereas Israel has historically been one of the leaders in the field. Turkey once even acquired Israel’s Heron drones.
It’s possible that everyone could work together well in this third country. But given Ankara’s anger over Israeli peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain, it appears that Turkey’s overall regional worldview is to try to isolate the Jewish state. This would indicate that Ankara’s push for more militarization of the Caucasus may not bode well for Jerusalem.
The wider regional issue is important. Israel has good relations with Russia, which supports Armenia. Israel has very bad relations with Iran, which also supports Armenia.
Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan but bad relations with Turkey, and Turkey supports Azerbaijan. That means that with all this complexity there is no clarity on what a wider conflict could mean for Israel.
Israel has no direct role in the outcome of the conflict, but like every conflict in the Middle East, even when Israel has no connection, the wider ramifications will eventually affect the Jewish state. This is true whether they be tensions in the eastern Mediterranean or in northern Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
This is because, as the US withdraws from its historical hegemonic role in the Middle East, the regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Israel will inevitably have a larger role.