How pro-Israel Jews Became Azerbaijan's Secret Weapon in Washington

Azerbaijan and Israel have enjoyed good relations for decades, with reported arms and oil deals between the two countries. Now, the Central Asian country is leveraging that goodwill to increase its influence in D.C.

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Baku, December 2016
ALL SMILES: Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Baku, December 2016Credit: חיים צח / לע"מ
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – On the morning of April 18, an event celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary was held on Capitol Hill. Despite the fact that such events were being held all over the United States that week, this one was particularly unusual as it honored not only Israel but also another country: the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The celebration was attended by members of Congress from both parties, Jewish and Christian religious leaders, activists from the Jewish community and representatives of the Azerbaijan Embassy in D.C. Overall, approximately 50 people attended. They were handed leaflets with the flags of both countries – Israel’s white-and-blue flag with the Star of David, and Azerbaijan’s horizontal tricolor with an Islamic crescent and eight-pointed star in the middle.

>> WATCH: Advanced Israeli weapons sold to Azerbaijan exposed in army-produced pop music video >>

As if an event honoring Israel and another country wasn’t unique enough, the fact that the other country was a Muslim-majority nation added even more significance to the gathering.

Israel and Azerbaijan have enjoyed official relations since 1992. Indeed, Azerbaijan remains one of the few Muslim-majority countries to fully recognize Israel and normalize diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Schoolchildren wearing traditional dresses wave an Azerbaijani flag during the annual Day of Reading event, in Baku, April 26, 2018.Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

But the Washington event represented a new stage in relations between the two countries. Azerbaijan is not trying to downplay its relationship with Israel or keep it quiet, as many Muslim and Arab countries have done over the years. Instead, it is openly celebrating that relationship in the hope of utilizing it to improve its own standing in D.C.

Beneficial relationship

“We regularly have events involving the two countries, but the event [on April 18] was very special,” Azerbaijan Ambassador to Washington Elin Suleymanov tells Haaretz in an interview. “It was the first time the two countries’ relationship was being celebrated, on the day of Israel’s 70th anniversary. I don’t think anybody has done something like this before.”

The man who hosted the event also played a key role in organizing it: New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who has been working to promote dialogue and cooperation between Israel and Muslim countries for two decades.

Schneier spoke at the event about the partnership between Israel and Azerbaijan, which includes economic, cultural and military cooperation.

Speaking to Haaretz afterward, he also noted the significance of how the two countries’ relationship is influencing Azerbaijan’s diplomacy efforts in Washington.

“It’s historic that Israel, on its 70th anniversary, can play a role in global relations between the United States and other countries,” Schneier says. He adds that while Israel’s influence shouldn’t be exaggerated, it’s true that cooperation with Israel is currently beneficial for countries trying to improve their own standing in the American capital.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, third from right, next to Turkey's then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a pipe-laying ceremony in Ceyhan in 2006. The pipeline provides oil to Israel.Credit: REUTERS

“In a way, that’s part of what we’re celebrating today,” he says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first visited Azerbaijan during his initial term in office in 1997 and returned in December 2016. Then-President Shimon Peres also visited the country in 2009. And over the years, a number of Israeli leaders have enjoyed warm relations with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his own father as leader in 2003.

Credit: Azerbaijan State border service

Azerbaijan has acquired military equipment from Israeli companies worth billions of dollars over the years – $5 billion worth by 2016, according to the Azeris. Some of that hardware surfaced in an unlikely place recently, when an Azeri pop music video revealed advanced Israeli weapons systems being used by the Azeri army.

A number of news stories in recent years have portrayed a military and intelligence relationship based on the two countries’ common sense of threat from Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran – although the governments in Jerusalem and Baku have not officially confirmed those reports.

If Azerbaijan is gaining access to weaponry and drones, according to those reports, Israel is also getting a vital commodity: oil. It is estimated that Israel receives up to two-thirds of its oil annually from the Azeris (although that figure fluctuates from year to year) – first pumped from Baku to Turkey, and then taken by tanker to Israel.

And this is just what’s reported. WikiLeaks published an email from the U.S. Embassy in Baku a decade ago in which President Aliyev described relations between the two countries as being like an iceberg: “Nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”

Israel has also faced criticism for its relations with Azerbaijan. The Central Asian country has consistently been condemned for human rights violations, with Human Rights Watch writing in its most recent report that the Azeri government “continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices.” Amnesty International, meanwhile, notes that “reports of torture and other ill-treatment persist.”

Is Azerbaijan using its ties with Israel to get on President Donald Trump's good side? "They’ve been doing it for a long time," says ex-U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

Darling of the American-Jewish community

The way Azerbaijan benefits from its Israeli ties in Washington has gradually become another important factor in the relationship.

Suleymanov spoke last year at the annual policy conference of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby group. Schneier observes that “Azerbaijan has successfully become one of the darlings of American-Jewish leadership.” The country’s support for Israel, he says, played a major role in that.

A notable moment that signaled the new reality occurred in December 2016, when the Azerbaijani Embassy arranged a Hanukkah celebration, together with major Jewish-American organizations, at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

While some Jewish groups critical of Donald Trump (including the Union for Reform Judaism and Anti-Defamation League) chose not to attend, close to 200 people did – including many members of the Jewish community. Among those in attendance were Malcolm Hoenlein, then-vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; and Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

A Jewish-American community leader who did not attend the Hanukkah party tells Haaretz: “It was one of the first events that showed the new dynamic in the Jewish community in the Trump era. The right-wing, Conservative groups going all-in on Trump; the more liberal and left-wing groups keeping a clear distance from him, even if that means not attending an event organized together with a Muslim country – something that in normal circumstances would be a cause for celebration.”

Schneier believes that, regardless of one’s political views, it is important “to demonstrate to the wider Muslim world that one of their own countries is celebrating its relationship with Israel, and receiving support and respect in the American Congress and in the American Jewish community. That sends a powerful message.”

Reaching the evangelicals

Suleymanov tells Haaretz that “people now cite Azerbaijan as an example for a country that has strong relations with Israel and is also an important member of the Muslim world. People ask, ‘If they can do it, why can’t others?’” he says.

“We remain active members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, we have our own special connections to many fellow Muslim nations,” he adds. “We did not become isolated because of this. We showed that you can be very committed to your values and to being an important player in the Islamic community, and at the same time have normal relations with Israel.”

The ambassador acknowledges that the relationship has “helped with the American-Jewish community,” and says he first witnessed the effect while serving as Azerbaijan’s general consul in Los Angeles a decade ago. “I received a lot of support from the Jewish community from day one,” he recounts.

The Trump International Hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan.Credit: Aida Sultanova, AP

Suleymanov says Azerbaijan has “close friendships and cooperation” with leading Jewish-American organizations – and this is borne out by the Azerbaijani Embassy’s Twitter feed, which often includes tweets on events involving Israel and the U.S. Jewish community (including an appearance by Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer at last June’s celebration of Azerbaijan’s Republic Day). The April 18 event on Capitol Hill is also mentioned in a series of celebratory tweets.

“The next step for them, which we’ve been working on, is facilitating outreach to the evangelical, pro-Israel community," reveals Schneier, who is involved in interfaith work bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Schneier adds that before Aliyev spoke at the UN General Assembly last year, he had breakfast with “a dozen of top pro-Israel pastors,” and that a similar event was held with evangelical faith leaders when Azerbaijan’s foreign minister visited the United States last year.

The connection to the evangelicals is providing Azerbaijan with access to one of the most influential religious and political groups in the Trump era. Some 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election and remain overwhelmingly supportive of the president, according to recent polling – at least partially thanks to his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city.

One of the speakers at the recent event on Capitol Hill was Pastor Robert Stearns, an influential, pro-Israel evangelical. He praised Azerbaijan for the rare example it is setting of being a Muslim country with strong ties to Israel.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian nation or a Muslim nation. If you support Israel, you’re on the right side of history," Stearns tells Haaretz.

When asked how its outreach to the Jewish and evangelical communities has affected Azerbaijan’s ties to the Trump administration, Suleymanov says “it benefits” the United States “to have cooperation between allies, between Israel and the Islamic world. They support this and encourage the relationship to succeed."

He adds, however, that “we have a long-standing relationship with Israel that goes back many years. This is not a one-administration relationship for us.”

Trump, it should be noted, has his own personal history with Azerbaijan. This includes a failed attempt to build and open a hotel in Baku that reportedly included partnering with a family considered “notoriously corrupt” by U.S. diplomats. Work on the project led to a visit by Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, to Baku in 2014. According to reports, it also involved Jason Greenblatt – who worked for Trump's company before joining the White House last year and becoming the president’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro speaking at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, in December 2014. Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel A

‘Old-school, smart Realpolitik’

Other countries seem to be adopting the Azeri approach and trying to utilize their relations with Israel to improve their own standing in Washington.

For example, there has been an uptick in the number of foreign leaders attending AIPAC’s conference in recent years. The leaders of two countries addressed members this year: Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania, another Muslim-majority country that enjoys full diplomatic relations with Israel; and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who received multiple standing ovations for his country's decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Last year's conference, meanwhile, featured a speech by Rwandan President Paul Kagame – one of Israel’s closest partners in Africa.

Another notable example of a country trying to use its ties with Israel to gain support and influence in D.C. is Qatar – the Arab Emirate that, after being blockaded by its neighbors in the Gulf last year, began an outreach campaign to the pro-Israel community in the United States. This included highlighting its cooperation with Israel to help rebuild the Gaza Strip and promising to shelve an Al Jazeera documentary about the “Israel lobby” in Washington.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia – Qatar’s main rival within the Gulf region – has made some surprising moves and statements regarding Israel, including one by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Israelis have the right to their own land. These all received praise from influential players in Washington.

“Each one of these states has its own particular reasons for improving its relations with Israel. But to the degree that they are leveraging it to enhance their standing in Washington – that is simply old-school, smart Realpolitik," says Vivian Bercovici, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel.

She also notes that “very shortly after Trump’s visit to the Middle East last year, Saudi ‘trial balloons’ about their close relationship with Israel were floated.” Trump’s “rock solid support for Israel,” Bercovici says, is having an effect on these developments.

Dan Shapiro, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2016, points out that countries trying to use their ties to Israel in order to gain support in Washington isn't a new phenomenon. This is especially true with regards to Azerbaijan, he says, noting, “They’ve been doing it for a long time.”

He adds that “what seems to be new is the more overt use of this issue by Arab countries – in a way that will be well received in Washington.”

But Shapiro warns that countries expecting their Israeli ties to be the sole deciding factor in Washington could face disappointment. He mentions the example of Honduras, one of the first countries to follow in the Trump administration’s footsteps and announce plans to also move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Yet despite this statement, the Central American country has recently been on the receiving end of harsh criticism from Trump over immigration issues.

Relations with Israel “is only one issue among many, and eventually the policy is based on a range of American interests,” Shapiro observes.

Still, in the current political environment in Washington, publicizing a country's ties to Israel is usually a smart investment.

“It might not solve all of a country’s problems, but it certainly helps create a warm atmosphere in some places,” Shapiro says. “I think that’s a good development. It’s something we need to encourage.”

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