Israel and Azerbaijan

An interview with Arthur Lenk
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary 
of the State of Israel to Azerbaijan

April 29, 2008
Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan in the World: What do you see as the central core of relations between Israel and Azerbaijan? How would you rate their current level? 

Ambassador Lenk: At the very core of the relationship between our countries is a human bridge, one between the Jews of Azerbaijan, my brothers and sisters who are living here as full and patriotic members of Azerbaijani society but are still linked to Israel, and the 50 thousand, or so, Azerbaijanis who now live as full and patriotic members of the State of Israel but still remain very connected to Azerbaijan, the land of their birth.  These two groups of people constitute two sides of the human bridge interested in our relationship growing.  This human aspect that I don’t think Azerbaijan has with that many countries makes our relationship very special.  There are of course many other interests we share, and all of them are very important, but I think none is more important than person-to-person ties that bring Azerbaijan and Israel together. 

AIW: How have Azerbaijani-Israeli relations evolved during your tenure as Ambassador in Baku? 

Lenk: I am not sure that it has anything to do with who the ambassador is, but the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan has been developing in a positive manner because both of our countries and our common interests are developing together.  As an example, I can mention trade: Until 2005, there was almost no trade between our countries. But in 2006, Israeli exports to Azerbaijan amounted to 28 million US dollars and in 2007, they exceeded 80 million.  And that doesn’t include Israel’s purchases of Azerbaijani oil.  If we include them, then we have more than one billion US dollars in bilateral trade. 

AIW: What led to this remarkable growth in bilateral trade? 

Lenk: I think it was the product of the rapid development of Azerbaijan.  If you walk down the streets of Baku or Quba or Ganja, you see just how rapid that development continues.  Over the last two years, you have been a world leader in terms of economic growth.  And I have heard from your president and other leaders of Azerbaijan that your country needs to learn from leaders, from those who are the best in each sector.  We in Israel are not the best in the energy sector because Israel does not have any natural resources.  But what Israel has been very successful at is in using its human capital and very limited natural resources to achieve a great success.  The high technology sector and agro-business are two examples of this success.  

AIW: What is the state of energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel?  

Lenk: Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s largest oil customers, and Azerbaijan is Israel’s second largest supplier.  We have been buying Azerbaijani oil for a number of years, although it has very much increased since the opening of BTC.  And that increase makes perfect sense; that is why BTC was built – not for Israel, but to insure that Azerbaijani oil, instead of remaining in the Caspian, reaches the Mediterranean.  And what is the closest economy to Ceyhan?  Israel’s.  That is not because anybody planned it this way, but this is simple geography.  And because it is so close, it serves the interests of Azerbaijan and the other countries involved for Israel to be an important customer.  So, we are buying more and more oil from Azerbaijan, and that is an important aspect of our relationship.  Moreover, Israel has a pipeline between Eilat and Ashkelon that may help Azerbaijan send more of its oil to Asia.  This is something that Azerbaijani and Turkish leaders have discussed before.  This issue will also feature in the discussions with Israel’s national infrastructure minister (who is in charge of energy issues in Israel), Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who visited Baku in 2006 and is going to come back this June for the Oil and Gas conference.  The fact that the minister is coming to Azerbaijan for the second time in two years is an indicator of the growth in energy cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, and its potential to extend in a number of different directions.  
AIW: There has been some discussion about possibly extending the BTC pipeline so that it would be directly linked to the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.  How realistic is that idea?

Lenk: I am not sure I’d call it an extension of the BTC, but Israel and Turkey have been considering the feasibility of building a pipeline between Ceyhan and Ashkelon that would make it easier for Israel to purchase Azerbaijani oil.  And if such a pipeline existed, Baku could easily export its oil all the way to India and Thailand, countries which have already expressed an interest in buying Azerbaijani oil.  Consequently, the talks are pretty serious, and the issue now is about economic feasibility.  I’m not an expert on that but I do know that the two countries are conducting such studies.  And, as I already mentioned, this will be one of the issues Israeli national infrastructure minister will be discussing with his Azerbaijani colleagues in the coming June.
AIW: Many commentators have suggested that if a water pipeline between Turkey and the Middle East were constructed, it contribute to the achievement of peace in that region.  Might the BTC pipeline contribute in the same way?   

Lenk: It’s interesting you mention it.  Azerbaijan’s relations with Jordan who is very important strategic partner for us are growing.  The king of Jordan will be in Azerbaijan next week.  Wouldn’t it be great if oil from Azerbaijan could go to Jordan via the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, which would be a natural choice as Eilat is next to Aqaba where the Jordanians will get oil.  Jordan would have more energy and be more connected to Azerbaijan, and that would certainly help build more trust and peace between us.  This is something that has been discussed between Azerbaijani and Jordanian officials.  I can also imagine a time in which there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Palestinians too will be interested in buying oil from Azerbaijan.  So I completely agree with your idea that developing our bilateral ties could help promote peace in your region and in mine, and we should definitely seek for ways to ensure this happens. 

AIW: What are the main components of trade between Azerbaijan and Israel, apart from energy? 

Lenk: Many other areas are very important, too.  First of all, there is agriculture.  Israeli technologies in this sphere can help build the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan.  In fact, Israeli minister of agriculture will be visiting Baku this May.  Another important area is high technology.  Israel is a high-tech country.  Indeed, although we are a tiny country in some ways, we are a giant in that sphere.  Another area where we can cooperate is construction, given the building boom here in Azerbaijan, and we are going to bring a delegation to have a forum together with AzPromo in the summer.  Also, I have just got back from Ganja and Goranboy, and one of the things I learned about Goranboy was that there is a real water-use problem there: the region used to receive its water from Nagorno-Karabakh which is now impossible because of the conflict with Armenia.  Hence, Goranboy’s farmers and its leaders are interested in learning about Israel’s water management technologies.  So, this is yet another area for cooperation between our countries.               

AIW: As you know, Azerbaijan’s involvement in GUAM is an important dimension of our country’s foreign policy.  That organization has been developing relations with countries beyond the region like Japan and the United States in what is called the GUAM Plus.  Is there any interest in Israel in getting involved in the GUAM framework.  

Lenk: We are certainly looking for ways to expand our ties and connect our region to yours, but we have a couple of countries between us that make such arrangements more complicated.  I think the BTC is an example of the way to connect Israel and Azerbaijan.  The Internet and hi-tech are also possible pathways to have our countries connected.  I would love to see a time when someone could drive directly from Israel to Azerbaijan.  Wouldn’t that be great?  That would require more stability and peace in your region and ours, but I don’t think that is so far-fetched.  Israel even now has very friendly relations with all four GUAM countries, we are interested in developing ties with each of them, and we would like to explore a framework for us to support GUAM.  

AIW: Israel has always expressed its full support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.  Why then did it abstain in the vote on UN General Assembly Resolution 10693, which was passed in March? 

Lenk: Around a hundred countries abstained in New York.  Israel was one of them.  At the same time, Israel very much supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.  In fact, there is an interesting parallel between Israel and Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan very much hopes that the peace process in the Middle East will succeed, and Israel thinks the same way about your region.  That is not always the case with all our neighbors, is it?  But it is true about Israel and Azerbaijan.  At the same time, given concerns and hope for the peace negotiations with the Minsk process, Israel decided to abstain along with many other countries.  On a separate but not entirely disconnected issue, it is important to know that Azerbaijan takes part in UN votes about 20 to 25 times a year on issues of relevance to Israel and our peace process, and on every single occasion, Azerbaijan votes against Israel.  That is not why we did what we did, but the fact remains that despite a somewhat troubling voting record on Azerbaijan’s part, we still view Azerbaijan as a strategic partner and emphasize the things we agree on.  I should emphasize here that Israel does not disagree with Azerbaijan on the issues of its territorial integrity.  Again, we didn’t vote against Azerbaijan; we abstained.  

AIW: Azerbaijan is actively working to strengthen its ties with its diaspora.  Along with the Turkish, the Israeli diaspora is one of the friendliest toward Azerbaijanis living abroad.  How do you see cooperation between these two diasporas developing in the future? 

Lenk: One thing that Jews and Azerbaijanis have in common is that each of us has more of our community living outside our country than inside.  I don’t know many countries of which this is true.  You have a large and active diaspora in Israel, where it serves as Azerbaijan’s lobby, the fact that I don’t think many are aware of.  Moreover, there is the traditional relationship between Azerbaijan and Jewish organizations and communities in many countries in Europe and the United States who have supported Azerbaijan and its relations with Israel since Azerbaijan regained its independence in the early 1990s.  Representatives of the American Jewish community were very vocal in supporting the construction of the BTC in the 1990s.  A number of major Jewish organizations from the United States, among them representatives of AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), have visited Azerbaijan in recent years.  Though those organizations are not Israeli, but American, they, along with most Azerbaijanis and Israelis, want to see the relations between our countries develop, and, because for both of us the United States is a very important partner, we welcome their growing relations with Azerbaijan.  Turkey is another very important strategic partner for Israel and because of Turkey’s relationship with Azerbaijan, I think this is a classic example of how we can have a relationship among countries and their diasporas to help one another building on each other’s strengths.  Not only is this cooperation among our three countries important in economic terms, but, at a time when people tend to talk about differences and clashes of civilizations, it sends a very important message that Islam, Christianity and Judaism do not need to separate people but in fact can promote cooperation. 

AIW: Some view the strategic partnership among Israel, Azerbaijan, and Turkey as directed against other countries.  How do you see the nature of this trilateral cooperation?

Lenk: I don’t see it as an alliance against anyone.  I believe the opposite is true.  I see it as an alliance of shared interest for collaboration for peace, for business, for friendship.  Israel has a very positive, important and growing relationship with Russia – if we have a large Azerbaijani diaspora, we have even larger Russian one, which is almost a million.  Russia is an important partner in dealing with Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor – Iran, which is a concern of all of the international community, not just Azerbaijan and Israel.  Moreover, Israel has very good diplomatic relations with Greece and with Cyprus, and we have diplomatic relations with Armenia as well.

AIW: For a long time people have been talking about the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel.  That hasn’t happened.  Why do you think there has been this delay? 

Lenk: From the Israeli perspective, we can only say: “Xoş gəlmişsiniz!” – “You are welcome!”  We would love to be able to offer the kind of hospitality to Azerbaijan that Azerbaijan has offered to us over these years.  That is what friendly countries do.  Moreover, as more Azerbaijanis visit Israel each year and more Israelis come here, there is a need for consular services.  And there are lots of other people in Israel, among them businessmen, who would love to learn more about your country.  So, I hope that an Azerbaijani embassy will open in my country soon.  It is an issue that Azerbaijan has to take for itself.  It seems to me that in these days, as cooperation between our countries grows and as Azerbaijan is seeking for more ways to promote its public diplomacy, Azerbaijan has its own interest in being in Israel and having people in Israel hear Azerbaijan’s position, its goals and agenda.  But this is a decision for Azerbaijan to make.     

AIW: Do you see any hurdles that Israel and Azerbaijan will have to overcome in order to improve their relationship? 

Lenk: I don’t think there are hurdles!  Senior decision makers in both countries have made it clear that we are both benefiting from the development of this relationship.  One measure of that is the increasing number of official visits in both directions, especially since 2004-05.  Up until 2004-05 there have only been two visits by ministers from Israel to Azerbaijan: Israeli health minister visited Azerbaijan in mid-1990s and prime-minister of Israel came over night in 1997.  The frequency of visits has greatly increased since after 2005.  As I have mentioned, Israel’s minister of national infrastructure came in 2006, and is returning again this June; Israel’s deputy prime-minister came in 2007; Israel’s minister of agriculture is coming this May.  In the opposite direction, in 2007 and 2008 Azerbaijani minister of economic development visited Israel and signed the agreement on investment protection; your minister of emergency situations came to Israel to take part in the emergency preparation exercise; the minister of ecology visited Israel last year and took part in a big exhibition; the minister of transportation also visited Israel last year; your minister of communications, information, and technology visited Israel in 2005 and he is coming back in 2008.  This is a lot.  And it is now up to the ministries of foreign affairs, both ours and yours, to work on a framework for our relations to grow even more.           

AIW: How does Iran fit into all of this?

Lenk: I look forward to a future when Iran’s citizens can visit Israel and Israelis can visit Iran.  I look forward to a time when Azerbaijanis and all the other citizens of Iran are free and able to live their lives peacefully and when Iran is a good neighbor.  Iran is a very important country, but right now, those who rule Iran have adopted policies that the entire international community views as dangerous.  The entire international community, through a number of UN Security Council resolutions, has been quite clear.  Iran must change its policy regarding weapons of mass destruction.

AIW: Given your own experience, what advice would you give young Azerbaijanis beginning their careers in diplomacy? 
Lenk: First, learn languages – and this comes from a person whose spoken Azerbaijani is awful.  I wish I had better Azerbaijani.  Languages are important: the more you can interact with people, the better.  I very much admire Elin Suleymanov, your consul general in Los Angeles.  He is always out visiting people of all kinds.  He is a model of how to represent your country abroad.  Your ambassador in Geneva is yet another example of how a diplomat should behave: he is not sitting in his office and always seems to be somewhere.  I very much hope that young Azerbaijani diplomats will soon be serving in Israel.  

AIW: Thank you, Ambassador Lenk for this most interesting interview.

Lenk: Thank you.  And let me reiterate that our relationship benefits both of us.  Both of our countries have neighbors who don’t want out countries to succeed.  But each of our countries wants to see the other succeed.  That doesn’t happen in every case around the world.  And as an Israeli, I value that and value the fact that Azerbaijan as an open, tolerant and friendly Muslim country is becoming a model for many others.