Israel’s close ties with Azerbaijan are no secret. For Israel, realism and strategic necessity govern decision-making. Azerbaijan provided the Jewish state with fuel at a time when most Arab oil producers boycotted Israel. In exchange, Israel provided Azerbaijan with top-tier weaponry. That a Muslim-majority state established a warm partnership with Israel was also affirming. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, used its ties to Israel to leverage allies in the United States.
Calculations regarding Iran also played a role. Prior to the Iraq War, Azerbaijan and Iran were the only two Shiite-majority states with a Shiite government. Azerbaijan antagonized Iran because it shined by juxtaposition. Iranians vacationing in Baku could walk the corniche without fears of morality police or the burden of compulsory hijab. They could enjoy beer, wine, or something harder in Baku’s bars and restaurants in a way they never could in Tehran, at least openly. That a secular republic outperformed a theocratic one undermined the Islamic Republic’s claim to divine legitimacy.
Azerbaijan’s service as a launch pad for the shadow war against Iran was just as important. Azerbaijan allowed both the United States and Israel listening posts, if not access to its territory, in order to conduct espionage against Iran, if not operations. Until Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev subordinated himself to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then pivoted toward Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan was simply a better ally than Turkey on issues relating to Iran.
A Complicated Reality
Situations evolve. Israel no longer needs to depend on Azerbaijani fuel, given the establishment of warm diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates as well as the development of the Eastern Mediterranean gas field. Israel’s accelerated embrace of Azerbaijan, however, comes at a huge strategic cost. In the months prior to Azerbaijan’s September 2020 surprise attack on the Artsakh, the self-governing but unrecognized Armenian state in Nagorno-Karabakh, Israel provided Azerbaijan with drones that tilted the balance of the war in Azerbaijan’s favor. Israeli officials and partisans pointed out that the international community recognizes the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani. Some also point to a history of close ties between Armenia and Iran.
Precedent matters. The basis of Minsk Group diplomacy prior to the 2020 war was land for peace: Armenia had agreed to return some Azeribaijani districts that it had occupied three decades before to defend strategic routes between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and guarantee Armenia’s water security. Armenia also sought to tie compromise on the status of Artsakh to assurances that Azerbaijan would not continue the ethnic cleansing of the historic Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh. While the international community recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, international law is more complicated. Independent Azerbaijan never controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. Josef Stalin gifted the territory to Azerbaijan after the formation of the Soviet Union as part of his efforts to gerrymander the USSR’s constituent nationalities. When Azerbaijan reasserted its independence at the fall of the Soviet Union, it did so on the basis of the borders of pre-Soviet Azerbaijan that did not include Nagorno-Karabakh. Regardless, repeated referenda showed the majority of the region’s population rejected Azeri rule and sought self-determination.
Azerbaijan, of course, rejects this. While the country is oil-rich, Aliyev family corruption has impoverished Azerbaijan. On a per capita basis, Azerbaijan is poorer than both Armenia and Georgia, neither of which have Azerbaijan’s oil and gas.
Israel Undermines Its Own Arguments
Ideology also comes into play. Azeris demonize Armenians in a way that has no equivalent in Armenia. Indeed, there is a functioning mosque in the center of Yerevan. Aliyev’s own rhetoric dehumanizes Armenians and likens them to animals and insects. That the September 2020 invasion came on the centenary of the Ottoman invasion of Armenia was no coincidence – it directly linked the action to a key episode in the Armenian genocide.
By siding with Baku, Jerusalem sets a precedent by which it undermines its own arguments for defensible borders. Ignoring Armenia’s historical ties to Artsakh and the will of the Armenians living there for generations also empowers those who deny any Jewish heritage in Jerusalem and the Israeli government’s own claims to portions of the West Bank.
Pundits and propagandists can tweet and repeat “Armenia is an ally of Iran” as a mantra, but this is disingenuous. Azerbaijan and Turkey’s blockade of Armenia forces the relationship and empowers Iran. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, treats such pundits as useful idiots to distract Washington as Baku deepens its own economic ties to Tehran.
Perhaps Israel’s greatest mistake, however, is moral. Aliyev’s rhetoric toward Armenia and Armenians is little different than Saddam Hussein’s against Israel or Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s against Jews. His most recent attack on Armenia proper shows that Aliyev’s rhetoric is not simply bombast – not any more than Saddam Hussein’s reference of Kuwait as a nineteenth province was. Simply put, Aliyev is a racist and is ideologically committed to Armenia’s eradication. So too are many in Turkey. Erdogan ally and Great Unity Party leader Mustafa Destici tweeted on Sept. 15, “We say to the Armenian administration: Make up your mind: I remind you once again that the Turkish Nation has the power to erase Armenia from history and geography, and that they stand at the limit of our patience.” Neither Erdogan nor Aliyev denounced him. That Azerbaijani cargo planes, meanwhile, shuttled between Baku and Tel Aviv before the latest Azeribaijani assault deserves explanation. Perhaps the trade was innocent, but the fact that similar flights occurred before the September 2020 attack is suspicious.
Time to Speak Up About Azerbaijan
Traditionally, Jewish groups and Israel discounted the Armenian genocide, because they believed it would detract from the Holocaust. This is false. Both events were evil, unique, and interrelated. Many Jewish groups now acknowledge this.
Both Armenians and Israeli Jews are surrounded by forces who seek their eradication. Rather than provide cover for Azerbaijan as Aliyev descends into a rabbit hole of hate, Israel should use its leverage with Aliyev to warn him that he risks transforming Azerbaijan into a pariah state. To be Erdogan’s mini-me as the Turkish leader enters his final years does Azerbaijan a disservice. Silence and excuses enable Aliyev’s increasingly erratic behavior.
There may be some practical reason why Israeli officials do not speak up. They may fear that Aliyev could turn on Azerbaijan’s shrinking Jewish population, essentially treating them as hostages in the same manner that Erdogan and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do. Likewise, Israel may fear that Aliyev will turn against them and side with Iran. Either reality, however, would be a tacit acknowledgement that Aliyev is not the secular and tolerant opponent to the Islamic Republic they make him out to be. Simply put, for Israel to associate itself with a dictator increasingly intent on Armenian cultural eradication, ethnic cleansing, and genocide will be a stain not easily removed.