Both Azerbaijan and Israel may be willing to work together in special situations where their geopolitical interests overlap.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and former Israeli leader Shimon Peres in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, June 2009. Photo: AP

“The visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Azerbaijan will contribute to developing the relations between the two countries,” said Dan Stav, the Israeli ambassador to Baku, in an interview with the information agency Trend on Nov. 5. The date of the Israeli prime minister’s visit is yet to be finalized, but it is clear already that Israel attaches great importance to it.

How important are Azerbaijani-Israeli relations today, in the context of a new status quo forming in the Middle East and the growing interconnections between that region and the post-Soviet states of the Caucasus?

After the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., official Baku for many years has promoted  its strategic partnership with Israel. Such a partnership was motivated by several factors. Azerbaijan was interested in overcoming, with the help of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby within the U.S., the powerful Armenian lobby hindering the development of American-Azerbaijani relations.

For a southern neighbor, Azerbaijan has Israel’s strategic opponent Iran. Baku’s bilateral relations with Iran after 1991 have not been easy. After an abrupt decline in the early 1990s, they experienced an upturn in 2004–2005, then a new decline during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013) and a “reset” since 2014.

Finally, there is the matter of energy security. Even before the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was put into operation during the 1990s, Israel had become the second-largest buyer of Azerbaijani oil. Israel annually buys Azerbaijani oil in an amount that is one-fifth of the country’s demand. Also, Azerbaijan and Israel have been cooperating in the military-technical area.

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Israel had its reasons, too. Having a negative reputation in the Islamic world, the Jewish state was interested in developing its relations with the secular regimes of the Muslim East, especially with a state that is a neighbor of Iran, Israel’s strategic opponent. According to Israeli Ambassador Dan Stav, “While there is massacre going on between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, you can also see a positive alternative proposed by Azerbaijan.” 

After Turkey-Israel relations worsened abruptly in 2010, Tel Aviv has come to appreciate especially its partnership with Baku, although the Azerbaijani vector has not compensated completely for the losses that Israel suffered from the “cold peace” with Ankara.

Over the past few years, a whole series of high-ranking officials and statesmen of Israel have visited Baku (including such prominent persons as Ehud Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman and Shimon Peres). Among the Shimon Peres delegation that visited Baku in 2009 was Avi Leumi, director of the Israeli company Aeronautics, a world leader in the production and sales of military drones. The present head of the Israeli government, Benjamin Netanyahu, had already visited Baku in 1997 but that visit lasted only a few hours.

At the same time, there are some aspects to the Israel-Azerbaijan relations that belie a serene picture. Thus, official Baku supported (and is supporting still) Palestinian independence via the platforms of the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In this latter organization, Azerbaijan is quite active, seeing it as a resource for voting in international organizations on issues that are of importance to Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Some episodes of the long-term conflict between Israel and Palestine also caused a reaction from Azerbaijan that was far from being pro-Israel. In late December 2008, Ali Hasanov, head of the social-political department of the Azerbaijani presidential administration, unilaterally condemned Israel’s performance in its Cast Lead operation against Hamas. Early in the following year, a similar position was presented by the press service of Azerbaijan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 2012, during a voting in the UN General Assembly, the Azerbaijani delegation supported raising the status of the Palestinian representation to the level of an “observer state.”

It might be tempting to criticize the Azerbaijani foreign policy for inconsistency. However, foreign policy is not subject to laws of formal logic. Rather, dialectic laws can be applied here as diplomacy is oriented not to general, abstract standards but to the contradictory political reality that cannot be neglected. As a consequence, a complex, seemingly illogical game is played.

Thus, Russia recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but refuses to do so with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, while Georgia and Armenia develop simultaneously their partnership with the U.S., the EU and Iran. Turkey recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia, while keeping open the “Abkhaz window.” In that sense, Azerbaijan’s moves with respect to Israel and Palestine are not entirely unique or unprecedented.

Firstly, Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet foreign policy has been a “seesaw policy” for years. Unlike many other post-Soviet republics, Baku has not tried to make an unambiguous choice between the West and Russia. Hence, it is possible to observe the steady relations between Azerbaijan on one side and the U.S., the Russian Federation and the EU (as a whole, and with the individual countries of the Union in particular) on the other side.

Having faced complications with Iran in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan managed, though not without effort, to attain a positive dynamic in its relations with the powerful southern neighbor. Secondly, having its own interests in the Middle East, Baku cannot be indifferent to the formation of a new status quo in the region.

In supporting Palestinian sovereignty today, Azerbaijan does not contravene the interests of either the West or Russia. Meanwhile, not only Moscow but also such a consistent, strategic ally of Israel as Washington seeks to develop its relations with Palestine.

Post-Soviet Azerbaijan is a secular country. Yet, Islam (as well as sympathy with the Palestinian movement) grows here, too. This growth cannot be dismissed. The Russian foreign policy in the Middle East area follows much the same logic when it aims at constructive relations both with Israel and Palestine. Moscow cannot ignore the considerable Muslim population of the Russian Federation, which is quite watchful, and actively reflecting, especially over Middle East developments.  

Last but not least, there is the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The present negotiation format (dominated by the Minsk OSCE group and Russia) is widely criticized. Of course, this does not mean that the old format is about to be replaced by a new one. In that, both the West and Russia share a certain common approach despite all their differences over Ukraine and Syria. But the search for new formats is on, whether observers like it or not.

In that context, the position of the countries representing the Muslim East (and sympathizing with the Palestinian State) may be useful if the old conflict is subject to more intensive debate within the UN. Drawing parallels between the refugees from Palestine and those from Nagorno-Karabakh may also be useful as a discourse to influence not only the “Arab world” but also the European politicians and public leaders that are critically disposed towards Israel.

It is not out of the question, though, that Israel may prefer, in some “special cases,” to disregard the “duality” of its partners’ foreign policy, especially in such regions as Transcaucasia and Central Asia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.