There has been much speculation surrounding Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel, including reports that Israeli warplanes might use Azerbaijani airfields as support bases during a potential attack against Iran. The reality of the bilateral relationship is not so dramatic, as it is pragmatic.
We must keep in mind that neither country is an essential strategic asset for the other. From the Israeli point of view, relations with Azerbaijan represent the latest incarnation of a ‘periphery strategy’, under which Israel, surrounded by hostile Arab states, reaches out to the ‘outer ring’ of non-Arab, ‘moderate’ Muslim states. In bygone decades, Kemalist Turkey and monarchist Iran played this role.
Today, Israel’s relations with Turkey are tense, and Iran is an arch-enemy. Azerbaijan is now a cog in the periphery strategy. But Baku can’t compensate for the loss of Israel’s former strategic assets. Azerbaijan is a country with its own geopolitical entanglements, including one that has left roughly 20 percent of its territory under foreign occupation. Baku is not in position to supply the type of support that would be relevant to the security challenges that Israel faces, especially vis a vis Iran.
Some of Israel’s neoconservative allies in the United States have dreamed about stoking separatist sentiment in northern Iran, where there is a high concentration of ethnic Azeris. But officials in Baku are wary of provoking Iran. They are cognizant of Iran’s capacity to retaliate – for example, by potentially staging terrorist attacks against the country’s energy infrastructure, or targeting American and Israeli interests and mobilizing radical Islamists inside Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani leadership clearly does not want a war at its doorstep, with all its unpredictable consequences. Neither does it want a full normalization of relations with Iran. It rather seeks manageable tension, which would allow Baku to cast itself as the West’s crucial ally against ‘mad mullahs’ and deflect attention from its steadily deteriorating human rights record. As far as relations with Iran are concerned, Baku will follow its own calculations, which may well continue to diverge from Israel’s.
From the Azerbaijani perspective, relations with Israel are valuable, since Israeli officials are not bound by the US and EU embargo on arms sales to Azerbaijan. Thus, Israel represents an important weapons outlet amid Baku’s ongoing efforts to regain control over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Indeed, Israel has sold sophisticated military hardware and know-how to Azerbaijan – enabling Baku to produce its own drone aircraft.
But, it is worth noting, a military build-up is not likely to secure Azerbaijan’s strategic objective in Karabakh enclave. If Baku is ever going to govern the territory effectively in the future, it will have to convince Karabakh Armenians that their future is better secured within Azerbaijan, not as a separate entity, or as a part of Armenia. The odds on that happening are already poor. And drone production does nothing to encourage Karabakh Armenians to accept Azerbaijani control of the territory.
Another major factor behind Azerbaijan’s efforts to cultivate ties with Israel is a desire among officials to gain access to the potent pro-Israel lobby in Washington. This makes sense from Azerbaijani perspective, since Azerbaijan seeks to counter-balance what it sees as an undue influence of the Armenian lobby on US policy in the South Caucasus. But Baku’s expectations in this regard are unrealistic. Nagorno-Karabakh is a non-issue for Jewish-Americans and Israelis. And a considerable portion of Israel’s supporters in Washington are unwilling to confront the pro-Armenian lobby, especially when Azerbaijan’s strategic ally, Turkey, is now an antagonist for both Armenia and Israel.
Azerbaijan, in turn, can’t afford to alienate Muslim countries, specifically Turkey. This is why Baku voted at the United Nations in favor of granting an observer status to Palestine.
It should be pointed out that most Azerbaijanis are unenthused about Baku’s ties with Israel. When Israeli officials, such as a former minister Efraim Sneh in 2010, or, more recently, the former ambassador to Baku, Michael Lotem, praised Azerbaijan as an “icon of progress in the Muslim world,” it merely breeds resentment among many Azerbaijanis, who are disaffected with the high level of corruption and the lack of individual freedoms in their country.
This is not to say that the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have no future. Azerbaijan, thankfully, is largely free from the poisonous anti-Semitism that prevails in much of the Muslim world. But a sober, realistic assessment by both sides is needed in order to maximize the potential of bilateral relations. For the time being, the diplomatic agendas of both Azerbaijan and Israel diverge significantly, and neither state seems willing to adjust those priorities in the interest of deepening bilateral ties.