In fact, until 2008, Israel, with strong US support, was a vital external supporter of the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgian geopolitical axis. But 2009 saw a deep crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations, when Turkey condemned Israel’s involvement in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Suddenly Baku was Israel’s only strategic ally in the Muslim world -- historically Azerbaijan followed Turkey and Egypt in developing deeper bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel. And until 2009, this balance continued, never questioned by Turkey. However, there is a growing tendency in Turkey, among the public as well as government officials, to wonder openly about Azerbaijan’s allegiances. Since the deterioration of Ankara-Tel Aviv relations, Azerbaijan has faced a dilemma: can an enemy of a friend be a friend? Baku has followed the Jewish aphorism, “Don’t sell the sun to buy a candle,” and has tried to maintain cordial relations with the two countries.
Thus at this point, the Azerbaijan-Israel relationship can best be described as “strategic, but not diplomatic.” Here are some perspectives on the broader geopolitical significance of the dilemma:
Azerbaijan-Israel thaw related to Washington’s policy shift not Turkey’s spat with Israel
It is a misunderstanding that Israel developed its partnership with Baku, in order to maintain its only Muslim alliance, after losing the strategic partnership with Turkey. In fact, it’s much more to do with US foreign policy towards Turkey. Since 2008, Washington seems to have moved away from the Caucasus, and therefore it is in US interests to maintain its strategic interest in the countries of the Caucasus via Israel. It’s difficult to believe that the United States and Israel are not coordinating their activities in the Caucasus. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Georgia see Israel as a messenger to the US, and as a country that can help them strengthen relations with Washington.
Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel is in Ankara’s interests
When Turkey’s relations with Israel deteriorated, strengthening the anti-Israeli front in the Middle East, one of Israel’s main strategies was to take counter-measures against Turkey by establishing close cooperation with the Armenian diaspora in the US, and beginning talks about recognizing the 1915 events as a genocide. In December 2011, when the Israeli Knesset began to discuss the prospect of officially recognizing 1915, the Azerbaijani diaspora, namely the Association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), denied the genocide, and called for the government to refrain from making any official statements, and wait for the decision to be made in an international, academic forum. Hence, in the end Israel decided not to recognize the 1915 events as genocide, from which one can conclude that they were wary of touching upon issues sensitive to Azerbaijan, and understood that any dalliances with the Armenian lobby would be harshly criticized by Azerbaijan. Furthermore, as part of their strategic alliance with Azerbaijan, Israel and the Jewish lobby have refused to support the genocide resolution in the US and have assisted Turkish efforts to block it.
Azerbaijan is vital for Israel’s energy sector
This might seem surprising, but by 2009 Azerbaijan was providing 25-30 percent of all Israeli oil imports and according to the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan, Israel was Azerbaijan’s sixth largest trading partner, with a turnover of $295.9 million in January and February 2012. An indication of the existence of this odd alliance is that Israeli companies are active in the Azerbaijani energy sector: Modcon Systems Ltd., an Israel-based supplier of high-level technology to the oil and gas industries, has a branch in Azerbaijan. Further, given that Israel cannot buy gas from Iran under the current conditions of hostility, and in light of the fact that Iraq and Israel have technically been at war since 1948, Baku is the country’s only potential gas supplier. But this reliance on Baku depends on the countries relations with Turkey; if they improve, Israel may consider building an underwater gas pipeline to Haifa and an oil pipeline extension from Ceyhan to Ashkelon to reduce their reliance on Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan supported Palestine and Lebanon despite good relations with Israel
Even with the strong economic and political cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel, Azerbaijan sided with Palestine. The Azerbaijani government decided to send an official delegation to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC- now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) Parliamentary Assembly on the crisis in Gaza. In addition, last year Palestine opened an embassy in Azerbaijan, in line with Baku’s legal recognition of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. To put this in context, Baku has supported all international legal documents that address the Israel-Palestinian issue. When Israel occupied Lebanon, Azerbaijan was one of the eight OIC states to send an ultimatum to Israel to stop violent action in Lebanon. Baku also agreed to send peacekeeping forces to Lebanon.
“Shared strategic interests”
Azerbaijan-Israel relations are based on the exchange of oil for technology and military equipment. This quid pro quo of “shared strategic interests” means the containment of Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia. This shared interest dates back to the 1990s when Iran was supplying natural gas and fuel to Armenia, which helped sustain Armenian action, with Iran using Armenia as a potential buffer against the future rise of Azerbaijan. In contrast, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war Israel provided military equipment, including Stinger missiles, to Azerbaijan. That had a major impact on Iranian and Azerbaijani relations; two traditional neighbors became “rival brothers”, and at the same time Israel moved from being a friend to a strategic partner for Azerbaijan. In recent years this cooperation has gained new meaning, as Iran has directly or indirectly sought to start a proxy war, supporting terrorist actions in Azerbaijani territory.
Next we will address the question: is this relationship like an iceberg, nine-tenths below the surface?