Azerbaijan-Israel Relations Shifting The Geopolitics Of The Middle East – Analysis
By Murad Muradov and Ilkin Guliyev
In recent years, relations between Azerbaijan and Israel have been flourishing in terms of political, economic, and military cooperation. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Azerbaijan was Israel’s second-largest destination for weapon exports between 2018 and 2022. These weapons, particularly the Harop precision drones and missile interceptor systems played a significant role in Azerbaijan’s success in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has increased its energy supply to the State of Israel, which already accounts for 40% of Israel’s energy demands after the Ukraine war. Besides all these pragmatic reasons, the close relationship between the two countries has historic and cultural foundations as well: Azerbaijan is the home to the last remaining Jewish community in the Caucasus, known as Krasnaya Sloboda (“Red Town”), while a large community of European Jews has been living in Azerbaijan (mostly in Baku) since the late 19th century.
Cooperation between these two has also the potential to affect their foreign policies towards other countries, and the recent Israel-Türkiye rapprochement best illustrates this potential. In 2010, a profound break in relations between the countries happened following the Mavi Marmara incident, when a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Palestine was targeted by Israeli navy. In 2016, Türkiye and Israel reconciled with the condition that Israel would pay around $20 million to the families of the activists who died in the incident. Even though, this agreement was short-lived as Türkiye ended its relationship with Israel in 2018 following the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Another important milestone for the regional politics was the Abraham Accords, reached with the support of Washington in August 2020. The “Abraham Accords” envisaged the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries, such as the UAE and Bahrein.
At first, Türkiye reacted negatively to the process, with President Erdogan even threatening to break ties with the United Arab Emirates. However, Ankara and Jerusalem ended up on the same side defending Azerbaijan when the war in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted, which seemed to remind both nations of what they could accomplish together. By December 2020, the Erdogan administration discovered that the diplomatic conflict with Israel was putting it into an inconvenient position. After a decade of strained relations, the government changed course and decided to work on repairing damaged ties.
As part of this shift, Türkiye aimed at improving its relationship with Israel, even acquiescing silently on the Abraham Accords, despite its previous criticism. Azerbaijan was well positioned to play a potential bridge role in the normalisation process and in December 2020, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said that Baku could mediate between Tel Aviv and Ankara. Later, Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev eagerly stated that Baku could host a tripartite negotiation. On the other hand, Avigdor Liberman, the USSR-born politician who is one of the leading figures of the Azerbaijan lobby in Israel, would be open to the mediation of the Azerbaijanis in the resumption of Turkey-Israel relations and could help initiate that process.
This thaw in the bilateral ties came after more than 10 years of tensions. A visit to Turkey by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in March 2022, followed by reciprocal visits by the both foreign ministers, helped to warm relations. In June last year, Türkiye and Israel worked together to disrupt Iranian plans for kidnapping and attacking Israelis. Two months later, the two governments announced that they had fully restored diplomatic relations. Thereafter, in October 2022, the meeting between the Defense Ministers of Turkey and Israel helped strengthen the normalization process, and Mr. Gantz’s visit to Ankara was notable for being the first by an Israeli Defence Minister in over a decade. In addition, an Israeli team rescued 19 Turkish citizens after a significant earthquake hit the south-eastern part of Turkey last month. Erdogan thanked the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, and said that Turkey would always remember the aid that Israel provided.
Azerbaijan has made Turkish-Israeli normalization one of its main foreign policy goals. As the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to escalate, Baku could not have asked for better timing in terms of strengthening the ties between its closest allies.
The growing tensions between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Israel have strengthened the strategic partnership between the latter two. This tendency was also observed in the autumn of 2022, when tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran contributed to the emergence of a new path in Azerbaijan-Israel relations. Two weeks after the September clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan borders, Benny Gantz, ex-Defence Minister of Israel visited Azerbaijan, where he met with the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Zakir Hasanov. Following this, Iran held large-scale military drills in October on the border with Azerbaijan, named “Conquerors of Khyber.” The Khyber War took place between Muslims and Jews, so this title clearly hinted to Israel. The drills included practising construction of a bridge over the Araz River and the capture of strategic positions.
After Iran’s exercises on the border, the Azerbaijani army also launched exercises on the Iranian border on November 2. Air force, missile and artillery units participated in the drills. On November 8, in his speech at the event held in Shusha to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Karabakh Victory, President Aliyev said, “Who does military training on our border to support Armenia should know that no one can scare us.” Two months after the Iranian drills, Azerbaijani and Turkish forces held joint military drills near the same border, deploying Turkish F16 fighter jets.
The “Abraham Accords”, Türkiye-Israel rapprochement, and the straining relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have added a new dimension to the Azerbaijan-Israel partnership. After decades of keeping a low diplomatic profile vis-à-vis Israel, in November 2022 the Azerbaijani parliament approved a bill on opening an embassy in Tel Aviv. Until recently, Azerbaijan had always declined Israel’s request to send a permanent ambassador despite Israel opening an embassy in Baku back in August 1993. This changed when Azerbaijan made the historic decision to finally reciprocate after almost 30 years. The reason behind Azerbaijan’s initial reluctance was due to concerns about upsetting other Muslim countries and provoking Iran, who held Israel responsible for deteriorating relations between Baku and Tehran. As it seems, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev felt that the time was right to follow suit.
During the short-lived Bennett-Lapid government, the Azerbaijan-Israel partnership was been elevated upwards to a new strategic level. Mr. Lapid called Azerbaijan an important partner of Israel in his statement. It is in this context that the visit to Azerbaijan of Benny Gantz, Defence Minister of the aforementioned government, was so crucial. Throughout his visit, Gantz emphasized the importance of “maintaining strategic relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan, and “reflecting on the changes in the Middle East following the signing of the Abraham Accords”, a statement from his office claimed. He and officials in Azerbaijan also discussed Israel’s developing ties with Turkey and additional countries in the region and the world. It can be said that the discussions during this visit played a crucial role in paving the way for the decision to open the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Israel.
The government change in Israel that happened at the end of 2022 has not had any visible effects on Azerbaijani-Israeli strategic partnership. The new far-right government of Israel headed by Benjamin Netanyahu continues to closely cooperate with Azerbaijan. Ilham Aliyev appointed the first Azerbaijani ambassador to Israel, Mr. Mukhtar Mammadov, on 11 January. Last February, then-Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with President Aliyev on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Recently, public demonstrations have erupted in Israel over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judicial system.
It is notable that Tel Aviv-Washington relations even strained in this period. Despite the latest wave of protests in Israel, Azerbaijani MFA Jeykhun Bayramov visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on March 29, for talks with his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, and to attend the embassy’s inauguration ceremony. This visit can be characterized as a decisive step by Azerbaijan while Israel’s international reputation was shaded by the massive protests and the new far-right government’s acts. At the same time, it must be noted that Mr. Bayramov didn’t forgo paying a visit to the Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, where he reiterated support to the Palestinian statehood as well.
The latest regional developments have played a pivotal role in deepening Azerbaijani-Israeli strategic partnership during Netanyahu’s term as well. On 27 January, Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran was attacked by a gunman. As a result of this attack, an Azerbaijani security guard was killed and two embassy security employees were injured. After the terrorist attack, Azerbaijan evacuated its diplomats from Tehran and completely suspended the embassy’s activity. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizada expressed, “That doesn’t mean that diplomatic ties had been severed.”
Contrary to the initial belief that the incident, which caused a diplomatic turmoil between the two countries and harmed Iran’s image, would be thoroughly investigated, the Iranian police and prosecutor’s office attempted to portray it as a simple homicide driven by personal grievance rather than a terrorist attack. The attack on the embassy in Tehran came in the context of the rising hostility towards Azerbaijan cultivated in Iran over the past few years. Since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Iran’s anti-Azerbaijani propaganda mostly feeds on the Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership. According to Iranian officials, Baku knowingly isolated Tehran from the Nagorno-Karabakh reconstruction process, while prioritising Israel. Iran believes that Tel Aviv is encouraging Baku to pursue an aggressive policy towards Tehran and challenge the established geopolitical order.
Following the attack, the news came of a Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement mediated by China. This development was perceived as a menace both in Azerbaijan and Israel. As a result, regional balance in the Middle East can turn against Israel’s interests while Iran gets a chance to bolster its pressure towards Azerbaijan.
While all these events have been unfolding, US government preferred not to take any tangible steps. Washington condemned the terrorist attack on Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, but in terms of addressing Israel’s concerns regarding regional developments, the U.S. response has been limited to military exercises, which were reportedly the most significant joint exercises between the two countries to date, according to American media.
This stance of the White House can be explained in terms of its interests in seeking to maintain balance in the Middle East amid its ongoing rivalry with China and the Russia-Ukraine war. But it must be emphasised that Washington’s passive position on regional processes encourages Tehran and makes it more aggressive towards Azerbaijan and Israel. All of the above-mentioned developments are bringing Azerbaijan and Israel closer day by day. During his last visit to Azerbaijan, Foreign Minister of Israel Eli Cohen stated that Israel seeks to enhance economic cooperation with Azerbaijan. In addition, Azerbaijan reported last week that it had lost its sole observation satellite and amid strengthening defence ties with Israel, IAI was chosen to supply two satellites for $120 million. Israeli-Azerbaijani relations are so important for both countries in terms of protecting their regional stances, national interests and struggling with rivals.
When it comes to the possibility of a conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran in light of recent tensions, the latest strain is not first and probably won’t be the last, given the contradicting interests and positions of these two. However, after each of the similar disagreements, the sides at some point have to deescalate, expressing their desire to maintain good neighbourly relations based on shared interests, historical and cultural ties. This stems from the fact that while Tehran is clearly a bigger and more powerful actor than Baku, it also can’t ignore the geopolitical realities, particularly the need to preserve its ties with Turkey and Russia, as well as its dependence on Azerbaijan in terms of logistics. Therefore, a possibility of any armed conflict between the two countries looks quite remote.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.