Looking Eastward: Peres proves a hit in Azerbaijan

The Shi'ite Caspian Sea nation fends off Iranian objections to his visit.

peres azerbijan president 248 ap (photo credit: AP)
peres azerbijan president 248 ap
(photo credit: AP)
During the first leg of his unprecedented four-day trip to the two former Soviet Muslim republics of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, President Shimon Peres stopped over for a weekend visit in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. His visit sent a clear message to neighboring Iran, negating assertions of groups like al-Qaida and representatives of Muslim countries that Jews and Muslims are doomed to perpetual conflict. Even before embarking on his visit, Peres set the tone by telling Azerbaijani news agency Trend News that tolerance for other religions typifies both countries. "A lot of things unite us," he said. "Azerbaijan manifests tolerance and respect to the point where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live without hatred and fanaticism. That is why [Azerbaijan] for me is a special country which I can trust. This country has its own cultural roots. Oil can be bought, but culture needs to be created. "Azerbaijan is a small nation. Both Azerbaijan and Israel face the same problem: how can a small nation become great? You can become great regardless of the size of your territory if you accept all the riches of modern science and technology." Peres also emphasized the desire of the Israeli leadership to share technological and scientific assets with Azerbaijan. He continued his interview by saying that "Israel does not possess significant territory, water, natural gas or petroleum. That is why we have to rely on our brainpower and our science. We will share everything we possess with Azerbaijan in the areas of common interest." Well-briefed about the paternalistic nature of the Aliyev regime, Peres paid tribute to Heydar Aliyev, the late father of current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He mentioned that he had met Heydar Aliyev twice and was impressed with this "highly educated man, who respected tradition." To further endear himself to his Azerbaijani hosts, Peres pointed to the established democratic tradition in this secular country. He mentioned that Azerbaijani women gained suffrage before such Western countries as Switzerland and the United States. Peres also focused on the shared experience of living in a hostile neighborhood. Pointing to the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and unfriendly activities of the Iranian state apparatus, he said: "I am aware that Azerbaijan faces a difficult problem emanating from your neighbors. In politics, it is impossible to choose neighbors, as it is impossible in the family to choose one's parents. Such is life. Israel fully supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan." Calling for full diplomatic representation and the opening of an embassy in Israel, Peres intimated that Israel expresses its support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in international forums. For Azerbaijan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue positively, Peres called upon its authorities not only to get closer to Israel, but also to strengthen ties with American Jewry. THIS VISIT represents the consummation of a trend begun in 1992 to deepen and expand bilateral cooperation in economics, agriculture, science and military affairs. Peres was accompanied by Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau, the director-general of the Defense Ministry, top executives of Israel Military Industries, and 60 businessmen seeking to tighten economic ties with both Azerbaijan and nearby Khazakstan, two Caspian Sea states. Among other issues, energy security occupied pride of place. Plans for pipelines to deliver Azerbaijani natural gas to Israel via Georgia and Turkey were discussed. Ben-Eliezer, as the infrastructure minister in the previous government, was directly involved in negotiations about cooperation in energy and water management,and Landau was briefed about the details.On the first day of his visit, Peres met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials for talks on bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues, according to the Azerbaijani news agency Azertaj. This discussion touched on two interrelated issues - the unresolved conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and relations with Iran, which supports Armenia. Both leaders signed agreements boosting cooperation in culture, education, science and hi-tech. Concerned about threats emanating from their neighbors and improving the balance of power vis-à-vis Armenia, Azerbaijani officials also expressed interest in buying more Israeli arms, in addition to several previous multimillion-dollar deals. Exploiting the common bond of Shi'ite Islam, Iranian secret services for years have been attempting to create secret pro-Iranian cells in Azerbaijan; they sponsor the Azerbaijani Islamic Party. On June 17, police briefly detained 19 members of the pro-Iranian party for protesting Peres's visit outside the Foreign Ministry in Baku. The Israeli delegation's arrival coincided with the trial of four Azerbaijanis and two Lebanese charged with plotting to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Baku last year. Azerbaijani authorities allege the suspects were connected with Hizbullah and al-Qaida. Before Peres's visit, the Iranian leadership had tried arm-twisting in an attempt to force Azerbaijan to cancel it. That was the purpose of last month's visit by Iranian Chief of Staff Hasan Firuzabadi. According to Azerbaijani MP Gudrat Gasanguliev, the Iranian media fanned hysteria during the days of the Peres visit, claiming that there were mass rallies in Azerbaijan to protest the meeting. The final straw in this anti-Israeli campaign was the departure of the Iranian ambassador from Baku - allegedly as a sign of solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan - as Peres arrived in the airport. Gasanguliev said in parliament on June 30 that "Azerbaijan extends friendly ties with Iran, while the Iranian authorities openly express their enmity." He concluded about the Israeli visit that "the majority of the population welcomed the visit and the further expansion of Azerbaijani-Israeli relations." The writer is an independent researcher; his book Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus will be published by Routledge in September.