As Tensions With Iran Mount, Officials From Neighboring Azerbaijan Visit Israel

As the U.S. embassy was inaugurated in Jerusalem and death toll in Gaza rose by the hour an Israeli minister met with an Azeri delegation to discuss the evolving cooperation between the two countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, 2016
Chaim Tzach/GPO

Last Monday, the world’s eyes were cast mostly on southern Jerusalem, where the U.S. was inaugurating its new embassy in Israel’s capital, and on Gaza, where the list of dead grew by the hour in tandem with the festive ceremony. Immediately afterward, condemnation from Muslim nations began pouring in, led by Turkey, which declared an acute diplomatic crisis with Israel. But at the same time, under the radar, a new milestone was reached in Israel’s relations with a Muslim friend of Turkey and neighbor of Iran: the Republic of Azerbaijan.

That day, May 14, on the backdrop of the tensions, senior Azeri officials visited Israel for the first meeting of the inter-governmental economic committee established to tighten ties between the two countries. The delegation, headed by the Azeri tax minister accompanied by deputy ministers, stayed in Israel for three days, from Sunday to Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting, where the Israeli government was represented by Minister Zeev Elkin, was to examine ways to promote economic, commercial and business ties, as announced during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the country in December 2016.

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Relations between the two countries are seen of strategic importance since Azerbaijan gained independence in the early 1990s. Azerbaijan is a major energy supplier of Israel, and also a major buyer of Israeli weapons. As said, its location is key. Azerbaijan has big oil and gas fields, which Baku supplies Israel via Turkey.

Israel also sells a great deal of arms to Baku, which is delicately positioned between Russia, Turkey and Iran. During Netanyahu’s visit to Baku in 2016, President Ilham Aliyev revealed that his country had purchased from Israel about $5 billion worth of armaments. Or more precisely, $4.85 billion. Most of the contracts had been executed already, Aliyev said.

Advanced Israeli weapons sold to Azerbaijan exposed in army-produced pop music videoAzerbaijan State border service

Azeri media reports have said that Israel agreed to sell Azerbaijan the missile-defense Iron Dome system. Other foreign reports state that Israel sells radar systems and drones to Azerbaijan, and uses its territory to collect intelligence on Iran.

The Kuwaiti paper Al-Jarida recently quoted an Israeli source saying the Mossad had moved the Iranian nuclear documents through Azerbaijan. According to the report, two trucks were used to transport the nuclear files – traveling different routes in order conceal the operation - while the Mossad agents escaped on foot to separate locations in Iran. Two other Mossad operatives accompanied the truck travelling to Iran’s northeastern border, near Azerbaijan, where a third Mossad team awaited them along with Iranian smugglers.

In March 2012, Foreign Policy reported that Israel was thinking of basing its attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities from Azerbaijan.

In 2014, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon visited a weapons fair in Azerbaijan at which several Israeli companies were participating.

According to other foreign reports, an Israeli Harop "suicide drone" made by the Israel Aerospace Industries was observed attacking in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has been feuding with Armenia over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is in Azeri territory but is peopled mainly by Christian Armenians.

Israel sells the weapons despite the international position that the flames should be lowered in the Aremnian-Azeri conflict. This prompted Jerusalem lawyer Etay Mack to write in 2014 to the supervisory department of military exports, demanding that export licenses to Azerbaijan be voided because of the tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During fighting between Azeri and Armenian forces in the enclave, Zehava Galon, a Knesset member at the time, urged that Israel stop supplying arms.

Israel also supplies Azerbaijan with high-tech, agriculture and medical supplies. The country also has a long-standing Jewish community and Jewish schools, including a Chabad center.

In response to the present diplomatic crisis with Turkey, this week Knesset members including Amir Ohana of Likud and Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Union suggested that Israel officially recognize the Armenian genocide, through legislation.

The Knesset has been marking the Armenian genocide every year since 2012, but proposals of the sort are usually blocked because of the special relationship with Azerbaijan. The assumption is they will be blocked again.

On Wednesday, Meretz chairwoman was set to motion a debate at the plenum for recognizing the Aremnian Holocaust. The government informed it will not respond to Zandberg's motion, and offered no further comments.