By Shahin Abbasov
Policymakers in Azerbaijan are facing a dilemma: can an enemy of a friend be a friend? Specifically, can Baku maintain cordial relations with both Turkey and Israel at the same time?
Signs are emerging that Baku is facing pressure to make a public choice between Turkey, its most important strategic ally, and Israel, with whom Azerbaijan in recent years has developed close diplomatic, economic and military ties.
Turkish-Israeli ties nosedived after nine Turkish citizens died during a 2010 Israeli attack on an aid boat traveling to the blockaded Palestinian city of Gaza. Since then, both countries have recalled their ambassadors, and Turkey has expressed support for recognition of United Nations membership for Palestine. To repair what were once friendly relations with Jerusalem, Ankara has demanded a full apology from Israel for the 2010 attack and the end of its embargo on Gaza.
Now, Turkey is turning to its longtime strategic ally, Azerbaijan, for support on that front. In a September 19 interview with the government-friendly ANS TV, Turkish Ambassador Khulusi Kylych called on “brother Azerbaijan” to “reconsider its relations with this country,” referring to Israel.
“This issue concerns every citizen of Turkey and it should be reflected in [Azerbaijani-Israeli] relations,” Kylych asserted. Just as Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1991 to support Azerbaijan during its war with Yerevan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, so Baku, in effect, now should sever close ties with Israel, he continued.
But that request is more easily made than met.
Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries with relatively extensive ties with Israel, including the co-production and sale of military equipment. Israel also ranks as the second largest importer of Azerbaijani oil (after Italy), taking in 6.5 million tons per year – an amount that accounts for roughly 30 percent of Israel’s oil needs, according to Azerbaijani government statistics.
Kylych touched on that link, hinting at the possibility that Turkey could bring pressure to bear on Israel’s oil supplies via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. “We know about the Azerbaijani oil transit to Israel via the Turkish [port of] Ceyhan,” he said. “Israel should think about it.”
Baku may well be thinking about it, too — and, beyond that, to Turkey’s role as a trade avenue to the West, via Georgia, for Azerbaijani oil, gas and other goods. Disagreements over the transit of Azerbaijani gas already mar relations with Ankara; conceivably, scant interest exists for Israel to become another sore point.
Commenting to EurasiaNet.org about Ambassador Kylych’s interview, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Elman Abdullayev stuck to the diplomatic and obvious. “Turkey and Azerbaijan are brotherly nations,” he observed. “Turkey is one of the strongest countries in the region and has an influence on regional processes.” Officials have made no other comments.
Israel has made its position known. In a September 17 interview with ANS TV, Israeli Ambassador Michael Lavon-Lotem argued that Azerbaijan and Israel’s close ties “cannot be the basis for a third country’s interests.”
Unlike Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran, which also has pushed Baku to back away from Israel, Turkey, which shares deep cultural ties with Azerbaijan, could prove more difficult to ignore.
Analyst Leyla Aliyeva, president of the Center for National and International Studies, a Baku think-tank, believes that Baku simply will try to avoid situations in which it would be required to choose between Turkey and Israel. “Baku will be trying to keep the status quo of its relations with both countries,” Aliyeva said.
If it manages to preserve that status quo, some see a chance for Azerbaijan to act as a mediator between Turkey and Israel. “Israel should soften its position [on aid to Gaza] and Azerbaijan should very diplomatically explain to Tel Aviv that its position is wrong,” independent MP Musa Gasimly told the SalamNews agency. “Because a further escalation will harm all sides.”
So far, Azerbaijani opposition leaders have strongly supported Turkey in its war of words with Israel. A September 16 statement from the Public Chamber, a grouping of the country’s largest opposition parties, asserted that “Turkey is right” for reducing its ties with Jerusalem after the Mavi Marmara http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63628 incident.
But pro-government analyst Mubariz Akhmedoglu, head of the Center for Political Innovations, doubts that Baku will follow Ankara’s wishes. “If Azerbaijan supports Turkey on this issue, it could only harm Turkish-Israeli relations” by fueling Israeli anger, Akhmedoglu said.
Akhmedoglu reasons that the dispute between Ankara and Jerusalem is just a battle for influence in the Middle East. “We should not interfere. . . . At any time, Ankara could normalize relations with Israel. And where would that leave Azerbaijan?”
Such a difference of opinions only emphasizes the difficult choice that faces Baku, said Elhan Shahinoglu, director of Baku’s Atlas research center. “Our government is in a tough situation,” Shahinoglu said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.