A Haaretz investigation published on Monday reports that more than 90 Azerbaijani cargo planes have landed at a southern Israeli air base over the past decade. The planes allegedly brought some $5 billion-worth of Israeli weapons and explosives back to Azerbaijan. In exchange, Israel receives Azerbaijani energy and access to Iran — if Israel chooses to strike militarily at Iran’s nuclear program, it might use Azerbaijan’s airfields.
A Complex Conflict
This exchange might seem like a good deal right now, but in the long term, the cost to Israel will be far higher than any benefit the Jewish state receives.
Israel has a history of collaboration with Baku. Its drones were instrumental to Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan’s attack caught not only the Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh by surprise, but it also represented a U.S. intelligence failure. Jerusalem may see the Azerbaijani victory as a sign of a successful relationship, but precedent matters.
The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute grew around the territory’s referendum for independence and secession from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union fell. The United States, like much of the world, discounts this and sees Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory based on the gerrymandering undertaken by Josef Stalin a century ago. The legal situation is murkier: Not only was Nagorno-Karabakh’s referendum legal under the Soviet constitution, but when Azerbaijan reasserted its own independence from Moscow, it explicitly embraced pre-Soviet borders that omitted Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the time of Azerbaijan’s 2020 attack, diplomats from the OSCE Minsk Group chaired by Russia, France, and the United States were finalizing a proposed diplomatic solution to the dispute. They proffered a gradual Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani districts occupied by Armenia in exchange for security, as well as deployments of peacekeepers from neutral countries, perhaps drawn from Scandinavia.
By empowering Azerbaijan to impose a solution over disputed territory absent any consideration of demographic realities, the Netanyahu government affirms the same kinds of positions taken by rejectionist states and many European diplomats who discount any right Israel has to defensible borders. To discount any Armenian right to Nagorno-Karabakh and set aside the importance of protecting Armenian cultural heritage from destruction is to similarly forfeit any Israeli claim to Jewish religious and heritage sites in the West Bank, or any ability to complain when Palestinian groups bulldoze archaeological sites.
Israel also risks forfeiting its moral claims. Symbolism matters. Azerbaijan launched its surprise attack on the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Armenia. That was no coincidence. Azerbaijani officials, like their Turkish benefactors, continue both to deny the Armenian genocide and then, with no sense of irony, pledge to finish the job. In 2005, Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalybov, for example, told a visiting German delegation, “Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, right? You should be able to understand us.” Fifteen years later, Qarabag FK Soccer Club’s Nuran Ibrahimov wrote, “We must kill all Armenians – children, women and the elderly. We need to kill them without making a distinction. No regrets. No compassion.” In his quest to delegitimize his neighbor, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev himself increasingly sounds like late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
It is good to say (and mean) “never again.” Israel must stand firm against those who would delegitimize and eradicate Jews. It is wrong, however, to undermine others peoples’ quest to avoid renewed genocide — even to do so in the service of some realpolitik-rooted logic.
Morality matters in international affairs. Israel’s previous compromises continue to haunt the country. During the apartheid era, Israel engaged in military trade with South Africa. At the time, Israel had few friends, and its diplomats might have rationalized they had little choice. While it is unfair to suggest Israel was alone in trading with the racist regime — South Africa got its oil primarily from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman — had Jerusalem been more discerning, it might not face such episodes such as its recent expulsion from an African Union conference. The African National Congress is neither willing to forgive nor to forget.
Today Israel has a choice. Thanks to the Abraham Accords and the development of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, it need not rely on an increasingly erratic Azerbaijan, which functions as Aliyev’s personal fiefdom and is bent on bloody conquest. Jerusalem need not cut its ties, but there is nothing that Baku provides that Abu Dhabi cannot. The difference is that an embrace of Abu Dhabi will not create diplomatic and strategic precedents that will eventually undermine Israel’s security needs and the protection of Jewish cultural heritage.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave,