Israel-Azerbaijan ties are not a black-and-white issue - opinion

Azerbaijan has become a reliable strategic partner, providing Israel with around 40% of its oil and offering Israel a friendly neighbor in a hostile region. Armenia declined Israel’s offer.

The Azeri flag and Israeli flag are seen being waved. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER/AMIR COHEN)
The Azeri flag and Israeli flag are seen being waved.
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER/AMIR COHEN)

I am writing in response to the October 13, 2022, opinion piece “The Shame I feel as an Armenian Jew.” Like the author Nicholas Portnoy, I am an Armenian Jew living in Colorado. I have been to Armenia and Israel, and I am proud of both my heritages, which is why I wish to provide a perspective that does not demonize or delegitimize Israel or Armenia.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a tragedy that has robbed the South-Caucasus region of the chance for a better future. I hope that one day soon both sides will end the culture of hate and bring about a genuine and enduring peace. Both nations’ people deserve a better and more prosperous life.

My main issue, however, is with Portnoy’s condemnation of Israel. He is oversimplifying a very complicated situation. Israel does not take sides in the conflict, despite Portnoy’s allegations otherwise. And his comments cannot and should not be made in a vacuum without considering other facts.

Why condemn Israel for Azerbaijan ties?

In the 1990s, as Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their independence, Israel reached out to both, seeking to establish strong relations. Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, opened its heart to Israel and decided to develop a strategic relationship, long before most of the Arab and Muslim world.

Azerbaijan has become a reliable strategic partner, providing Israel with around 40% of its oil and offering Israel a friendly neighbor in a hostile region, especially vis-a-vis Iran. Azerbaijan is also home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in the Muslim world. Indeed, Jews there live in freedom and safety rarely found in the region.

MEMBERS OF THE Armenian community of Jerusalem hold signs and Armenian flags as they protest in front of the Foreign Ministry against Israel’s weapon sales to Azerbaijan in 2016. (credit: CORINNA KERN/FLASH90)MEMBERS OF THE Armenian community of Jerusalem hold signs and Armenian flags as they protest in front of the Foreign Ministry against Israel’s weapon sales to Azerbaijan in 2016. (credit: CORINNA KERN/FLASH90)

Armenia declined Israel’s offer to develop a strategic relationship and instead chose to establish closer ties with Russia and various other Muslim countries. Also, Armenia has had the highest record of antisemitic sentiments in Europe long before the 2020 war mentioned by Portnoy.

Armenia also continues to develop its alliance with Russia, having established two Russian military bases, and a strategic partnership with Iran, a country that calls for another genocide of Jews – a fact that Portnoy too comfortably ignores. As recently as June 2022, Armenia signed economic and political agreements with Iran.

Most Armenians usually respond to the claims about Armenia’s relations with Iran by saying that it is not aimed against Israel. Rather, they say, it is a strategic necessity due to Armenia’s geography. Doesn’t the same argument apply to Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan? In fact, wouldn’t Portnoy’s logic support condemning Armenia simply for its relationship with Iran, an oppressive, extremist Islamic, misogynist, genocidal regime? Such a conclusion is, of course, ridiculous.

Azerbaijan is crucial in Israel’s efforts to protect itself from Iranian efforts to annihilate the Jewish country. And in return, Israel indeed sells arms to Azerbaijan – as it does to Greece, India, and many other countries – to deter their common enemy, Iran. Just this week, Iran ran military exercises on its shared border with Azerbaijan and the main deterrent to an attack by the Iranians is the arms they buy from Israel.

When Iran held similar exercises on the Azerbaijani border last year, blaming Azerbaijan to be a Zionist base, Azerbaijani President Aliyev visited the Iranian border and took a picture with an Israeli drone. Creating this kind of deterrence against Iran is one of, if not the main purposes of Israel’s arms dealing with Azerbaijan. It is the same purpose behind Israel’s arms dealing with the Arab Gulf countries that are also threatened by Iran.

In addition, Portnoy’s remarks about Israel “having no shame” after the Holocaust, is entirely hypocritical. And Portnoy’s claim, that because of the Holocaust Israel is to be held to a higher moral standard than other countries is outrageous, to say the least. The idea that Jews – and they alone – should be held to a different standard than any other nation or group, and that they should know better than other Western countries is exactly as it sounds: treating Israel with double standards. Does Portnoy hold Armenians to a higher standard because they were victims of the Turkish Genocide?

As an Armenian and a Jew who fluently speaks, reads and writes in both languages, and loves both countries, I truly wish Armenia and Israel would become the friendly partners they should be. Both have been tragically persecuted and both remain surrounded by hostile neighbors. Neither of them is perfect. There’s no simple answer to mending their relationship but I know demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, partnering with an antisemitic genocidal Iran, and completely disregarding Israel’s national security interests is not the right path towards peace.