Vol. 5, No. 20 (October 15, 2012)

Azerbaijan and Israel in pursuit of a strategic partnership

Mahir Khalifa-zadeh, Dr.
Canadian Political Science Association

Azerbaijan has long been known as a multicultural locus in which many different ethnic groups, including those of Jewish origin, found home and thrived.  The historical foundation underlying multiculturalism in Azerbaijan is so strong that even the seven decades of the Soviet rule failed to plant seeds of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan. 
According to different studies, Azerbaijan has historically been home to what many refer to as Caucasian Mountain Jews—Jews of Persian origin whose history traces back to 2,000 years ago and who started to arrive in Azerbaijan in the early 5th century.  During the years of Russian imperial rule—beginning, roughly, in the 19th century—Ashkenazi Jews began to settle in Azerbaijan as well, their number having vastly increased as many Ashkenazi Jews came to Azerbaijan in pursuit of refuge from the Nazis during World War II (Tepper 2010). [1]
In the 19th century, Baku became a center for active Zionist movement in the Russian Empire.  The first branch of Havevei Zion (lovers of Zion) was set up in Baku in 1891.  And the first choir synagogue was opened in Baku in 1910. [2] In 1883, oil companies owned by the Rothschild family (the latter being of Jewish origin) entered the scene in Baku followed by Rockefeller’s gigantic Standard Oil Company (Altstadt 1992, p. 22). 
During Azerbaijan’s first period of independence (1918-1920), the Jewish Popular University was established (1919) and various periodicals were published in Yiddish and Hebrew languages.  Moreover, Dr. Yevsei Gindes, an Ashkenazi Jew, was Minister of Health in ADR’s Cabinet of Minister under first Prime-Minister Fatali Khan Khoyski.  In Soviet time, the Jews continued to arrive and actively settle in Azerbaijan, particularly before, during, and immediately after the Second World War.  Consequently, the Ashkenazi Jews formed a significant part of intellectual and technocratic elite in Soviet Azerbaijan (Murinson 2008b). 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the historically close and warm relations between Jews and Azerbaijanis served as a solid base for mutual cooperation between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan.  Indeed, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan emerged as among a few Muslim-majority states enjoying friendly relations with the state of Israel.  In 1997, Azerbaijan’s then president Heydar Aliyev met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Baku when the two men discussed threats posed by Iran and spoke on the Israeli-Azerbaijani intelligence cooperation, a meeting some scholars believe was a starting point in the cooperation between post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Israel (Lev 2012). 

As a continuation of Heydar Aliyev's strategy, the current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev welcomed Israeli President Shimon Peres in Baku on 29 June 2009 (Bourtman 2006), a visit that took place despite strong opposition from Iran. [3] 

Cooperation with Israel is vital for Azerbaijan for several strategic reasons.  First, both Azerbaijan and Israel have similar or near-identical sense of regional insecurity arising from an unfriendly environment. [4] Azerbaijan is concerned that Iran threatens to use force and expands intelligence network in Baku and other cities. [5] Moreover, and from an Azerbaijani perspective, Iran provides a large-scale assistance to Armenia. [6] 

Second, disagreements between Israelis and Armenians regarding the so-called “genocide” [7] have prompted Azerbaijan and Israel to cooperate on this matter.  Azerbaijani political elite considers Israeli or Jewish support as a key element to counter Armenian Diaspora, particularly in the United States and Europe.  In 1997, President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan met in New York, as part of his official visit to the United States, with representatives of American Jewish organizations and openly asked them to help Azerbaijan. [8] Unsurprisingly, Israel repeatedly declared that Tel Aviv supports Azerbaijani territorial integrity.  As Israel’s former Ambassador to Turkey and former Deputy Foreign Minister Pinkhaz Avivi noted, “[Israel’s] position is the following: we recognize the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity... We don’t try to hide the fact that our relations with Azerbaijan are more intense and rewarding than our relations with Armenia and that relations with Azerbaijan are strategically important for us.” [9]

Third, a decades-long successful experience of the Turkish-Israeli partnership prompted Azerbaijani decision-makers to also establish strategic ties with Israel.  Notwithstanding temporary problems in Turkish-Israeli relations, Ankara “understands that its regional aspirations require correct relations with Jewish state” (Inbar 2010).  Moreover, according to Zvi Elpeleg, former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, “relations [are unlikely to] deteriorate because there are fundamental reasons why Turkey and Israel have the same interests” (Demirtaş 2012).  Meanwhile, Azerbaijan also seeks to demonstrate that Baku can help overcome Israeli-Turkish disagreements over the Mavi Marmara incident and associated developments. 

Baku has explicitly welcomed a triangular security and defense partnership between Turkey, Israel and Azerbaijan that is particularly flourishing in energy affairs (Murinson 2008a), something that Baku believes could inter alia serve as an effective tool to strengthen and support the US diplomacy, including towards counterbalancing the Iran-Russia axis in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Fourth, defense cooperation to modernize Azerbaijani Army is a high priority for Baku in relations with Tel-Aviv.  In 1992-1994, Israel supported Azerbaijan in a war with Armenia and supplied Stinger missiles and other weapons to Azerbaijani troops (Cagaptay & Murinson 2005).  And recently, Azerbaijan signed a military deal with Israel to buy Israeli arms worth $1.5 billion. [10] 

Azerbaijan’s desire to cooperate with Israel is reciprocated by the Israelis.  First of all, Israeli policy-makers have long considered Azerbaijan and the Caspian littoral states as part of the Greater Middle East (Aras 1998).  And Israel has long tried to improve its security as well as foreign image and international relations.  In light of the latter, Israel launched a strategy to develop relations with non-Arab Muslim states.  And as some scholars noted, "[e]xpanding its influence into an area of the world heavily Muslim, but not Arab, has long been a strategic Israeli objective” (Bourtman 2006).  Indeed, the strategy is designed to improve relations with the Islamic world, as well as to demonstrate that Israel may have peaceful relations with Muslim states.  At that, Israel tries to prove there is no Israel-Muslim or Jews-Muslim confrontation.  The collapse of the USSR presented an opportunity to develop relations with newly independent former Soviet Muslim republics.  And now, Israel has diplomatic relations with nine non-Arab Muslim states.  Given that, Azerbaijan's experience of peaceful co-existence of Azerbaijanis and Jews briefly highlighted above was attractive for Israeli political elite.

Second, with Iran presenting the most serious challenge to Israel’s very existence, Israel launched a strategy of active diplomacy in the regions surrounding Iran.  As Israeli analyst Uzi Rabbi made clear, Israel must conduct active diplomacy in the regions surrounding Iran and “... to resist Iranian aggression several coalition alliances should be formed” (Grigoryan 2009).  Thus, Azerbaijan, for its strategic location along Iran’s northern border, occupies a top priority for Israel’s foreign policy toward the CIS. 

And third, Azerbaijani energy is a critical factor in Israel’s strategic calculations.  In 2011, Azerbaijan exported to Israel up to 2.5 million tons (about 18.5 million barrels) of oil with total worth of $2.1 billon.  Last year, trade turnover between Israel and Azerbaijan reached $4 billion.  As a result, Azerbaijan is Israel’s top trade partner among the CIS countries.  Undoubtedly, Israeli-Azerbaijani energy cooperation has become of vital importance for Israel’s energy security.  This cooperation allows to diversify supplies of oil and gas and explore Israel’s energy resources.  Baku provides Israel over one-third of Israel's oil demand (Alic 2012). 

While the level of bilateral relations is currently very high, the future of Israel-Azerbaijan cooperation could be more sustainable with the strategic nature of cooperation further buttressed by a strengthened focus on developing cultural and scientific ties between the two nations.  The establishment of an Israeli Studies department in one of Azerbaijan’s major universities and a parallel establishment of Azerbaijani studies program in one of the universities in Israel, for example, could be an important move in this direction.


Alic, Jen (2012) “Azerbaijan's International Energy Aspirations Raise Tensions in Middle East,” 15 May, OilPrice.com, available at http://oilprice.com/Geopolitics/Middle-East/Azerbaijans-International-Energy-Aspirations-Raise-Tensions-in-Middle-East.html (accessed 13 October 2012).
Altstadt, Audrey (1992) The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule  (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press).

Aras, Bulent (1998) “Post-Cold War Realities: Israel’s Strategy in Azerbaijan and Central Asia,” Middle East Policy, 1 January, available at http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-20297513.html (accessed 13 October 2012).

Bourtman, Ilya (2006) “Israel and Azerbaijan's Furtive Embrace,” Middle East Quarterly 13:3, Summer, pp., 47-57, available at http://www.meforum.org/987/israel-and-azerbaijans-furtive-embrace (accessed 13 October 2012). 

Cagaptay, Soner and Alexander Murinson (2005) “Good Relations between Azerbaijan and Israel: A Model for Other Muslim States in Eurasia?” Policywatch 982, 30 March (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), available at http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/good-relations-between-azerbaijan-and-israel-a-model-for-other-muslim-state (accessed 13 October 2012).
Demirtaş, Serkan (2012) “Amid Sound and Fury, Turkey-Israel Alliance Endures,” Hurriyet Daily News, 13 April, available at http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/domestic/10705597.asp (accessed 13 October).

Grigoryan, Artak (2009) “Priority Directions in the Foreign Policy of Israel: South Caucasus and Central Asia,” Noravank Foundation, 22 September, available at http://www.noravank.am/eng/articles/detail.php?ELEMENT_ID=3623 (accessed 13 October 2012).
Inbar, Efraim (2010) “Israeli Turkish Tensions and Beyond,” Hurriyet Daly News, 3 December, available at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=israeli-turkish-tensions-and-beyond-2010-03-12 (accessed 13 October 2012).
Lev, David (2012) ”Iran Warns Azerbaijan: Keep Mossad Out,” Arutz Sheva, 12 February, available at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/152671#.UJbdz6UgefQ (accessed 13 October 2012).
Murinson, Alexander (2008a) “Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel Relations: The Energy Factor,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 12:3, September, available at http://www.gloria-center.org/2008/09/murinson-2008-09-04/ (accessed 13 October 2012).

Murinson, Alexander (2008b) “Jews in Azerbaijan: A History Spanning Three Millennia,” Visions of Azerbaijan 3:2, Spring, pp. 58-64, available at http://www.visions.az/history,112/ (accessed 13 October 2012).

Tepper, Aryeh (2010) “The Azeri Exception,” Jewish Ideas Daily, 29 October, available at http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/747/features/the-azeri-exception/ (accessed 13 October 2012).


[1] Also see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Azerbaijan.html (accessed 13 October 2012). 
[2] See http://www.biblediscovered.com/jewish-hebrew-people-in-the-world/azerbaijani-jews/ (accessed 13 October 2012).

[3] See http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2009/President_Peres_visits_Azerbaijan_and_Kazakhstan_28_Jun_2009.htm and http://www.jta.org/news/article/2009/06/29/1006211/iran-recalls-azerbaijan-envoy-following-peres-visit (accessed 13 October 2012).

[4] See http://news.az/articles/politics/39340 (accessed 13 October 2012).

[5] See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46461790/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/iran-threatens-pre-emptive-action-amid-nuclear-tensions/ (accessed 13 October 2012).

[6] See http://www.mehrnews.com/tr/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1380193 (accessed 13 October 2012). 

[7] See http://secretjews.wordpress.com/006/ and http://www.news.az/articles/politics/38758 (accessed 13 October 2012).

[8] See http://library.aliyev-heritage.org/en/7423863.html (accessed 13 October 2012).  

[9] See http://vestnikkavkaza.net/interviews/politics/19641.html (accessed 13 October 2012).

[10] See http://www.defensenews.com/article/20120229/DEFREG04/302290002/Azerbaijan-Rejects-Iran-Fears-Over-Israel-8216-Arms-Buy-8217- (accessed 13 October 2012).