Last week, Israel's Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra participated in the X Gabala International Festival in the city of Gabala (sometimes spelled Qabala), northern Azerbaijan.
The General Director of the orchestra, Yair Shtern, told the Jerusalem Post that "Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are a positive, strategic partnership. Azerbaijan is a true model of inter-civilizational and interfaith dialogue. Tolerance and multiculturalism are key foundations of Azerbaijani society." One of X Gabala festival's directors, Dmitry Yablonsky, added that "the State of Israel has repeatedly expressed its appreciation for the warm and unique attitude of [Azerbaijani] President Ilham Aliyev toward the Jewish community."
This rosy picture of tolerance and coexistence runs contradictory to Amnesty International's most recent report on Azerbaijan. As the introduction to its 2017/2018 assessment of the country's human rights record, Amnesty observed that: "[Azerbaijani] authorities intensified the crackdown on the right to freedom of expression, particularly following revelations of large-scale political corruption. Independent news outlets were blocked and their owners arrested."
Critics of the government continued to face politically-motivated prosecution and imprisonment following unfair trials. Suspicious deaths in custody were still not effectively investigated.
Amnesty's report on Azerbaijan reads like a guide to politics in Israel: rife with corruption, increasing clamp-downs on critics of the government, the stifling of journalists and a string of laws that penalise the country's minorities. The actions of the Israeli government are strikingly similar to those of Azerbaijan, with its dubious human rights record hidden behind a veneer of tolerance. Yet with a long history of relations with such a questionable regime, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Israel is starting to look a lot like Azerbaijan.
As the world watched the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and the massacre of Palestinians taking place during Gaza's Great March of Return on 14 May, a delegation of senior officials from Azerbaijan visited Israel. The meeting represented the first gathering of an inter-governmental economic committee established to tighten ties between the two countries and examine ways to promote economic, commercial and business ties, Haaretz reported.
This was not the first time that Israeli and Azerbaijani delegations had met. In December 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the central Asian country. During a speech, Azerbaijan's President Aliyev revealed that "so far the contracts between Azerbaijani and Israeli companies with respect to purchasing defense equipment have been close to $5 billion." One such contract apparently included the sale of an Israeli "suicide drone" to Azerbaijan. The drone, which uses radar or radio waves to locate a target and then rams into the target until it is destroyed, was captured on film in April 2016 flying over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region that has been the site of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991. The use of the drone was dubbed "one of the first instances of such a weapon being used in combat" by the Washington Post and marked a decisive milestone in Israel-Azerbaijan military deals.
Israel is well-known as a prolific arms exporter, yet Israel-Azerbaijan relations are not restricted to sales of military equipment. Politically, both countries view Iran as their regional foe, with Middle East Eye (MEE) suggesting that the old logic "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a key driving force behind their cooperation. MEE adds that in its turn "Tehran sees this relationship as a threat to its security and claims that Azerbaijan serves as a forward base for Israeli intelligence-gathering, as well as offering the potential to prepare for a military strike."
Though not officially confirmed, it is believed that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has listening posts on Azerbaijani soil used to monitor Iran. The extent of this cooperation is unknown, but the US believes that ties run deep – in 2012 Foreign Policy reported that, according to four senior US diplomats and military intelligence officers, "the Israelis have bought an airfield and the airfield is called Azerbaijan." After Foreign Policy published its article, a spokesman for Azerbaijan denied that his government had granted Israel any such access.
Azerbaijan also has something that Israel cannot produce: oil. Middle East Eye suggests that "nearly half of Israel's oil imports originate from Azerbaijan. That's an annual purchase of around 40 million barrels, or 5.5 million tons of crude oil, worth $1.5bn." Since its construction in 2006, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline has allowed crude oil pumped from the Caspian Sea to be transported through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Two years after the pipe's construction, Haaretz reported that "Israel may be on its way to becoming a crude oil transport bridge to the Far East," citing a plan by the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) that would see Azerbaijani oil shipped by tanker from Turkey to Ashkelon, on Israel's Mediterranean coastline. The oil would then be transported via pipelines to Eilat on the Red Sea, then loaded onto a new set of tankers for transportation to eastern Asia.
It appears then that far more than participating in a relatively-unknown cultural festival, Israel's ties with Azerbaijan are entrenched. Within the broader geopolitical arena, with shared regional enemies and mutual economic incentives, perhaps this should come as little surprise. Yet a country's choice of friends can say a lot about its government – and when Israel hails a regime known for corruption, repression and persecution of its minorities, perhaps it's time it took a look in the mirror.
For the Israeli government under Netanyahu has of late given Azerbaijan a run for its money. In June it passed a law outlawing the filming of Israeli soldiers on duty, with those indicted facing five to ten years' imprisonment. The move has been interpreted as Israel's latest attempt to crackdown on rights groups and activists who document human rights violations committed by the Israeli army, after a number of high profile cases such as that of Ahed Tamimi and Abdel Al-Fattah Al-Sharif drew international condemnation.
Israel has also cracked down on news outlets and critics of its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. In August, Israeli authorities remanded Palestinian journalist Mohammed Muna in administrative detention and will hold him without charge or trial for a further six months. Israel arrested seven Palestinian journalists in one week of August alone, a move which the Palestinian Prisoners' Club (PPC) described as a "dangerous escalation against Palestinian information freedoms."
International critics of Israel have not been exempt. In July, two prominent activists known for their criticism of the Israeli government were banned from entering the country. The first, Ariel Gold, was a prominent supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and has long been an activist with CODEPINK, a left-wing NGO that works to end US-funded wars and occupations. The second, Ana Sanchez Mera, was also affiliated with BDS and was accused of intending to cause "great damage to Israel".
In recent years, Netanyahu himself has been embroiled in a corruption scandal that has threatened to see him indicted. Netanyahu is currently under investigation in four separate corruption cases, named Case 1000, Case 2000, Case 3000 and Case 4000 respectively. Others, including the PM's wife Sara Netanyahu and Israeli media tycoon Shaul Elovitch, have also been implicated in the investigations, raising questions about the extent to which this corruption is endemic among high-profile members of the Israeli establishment.
Netanyahu has also waged war on Israel's minorities. He personally endeavoured to see the controversial nation-state law, which declares Israel a Jewish state and strips Arabic of its status as a national language, pass through the Israeli Knesset before the parliament's summer recess. The move has drawn the ire of Israel's minorities, particularly the Druze community who have for decades remained loyal to the State and undertaken military service in the army.
Across all fields, the Israeli government under Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game. Courting corrupt and repressive regimes like Azerbaijan will do nothing to dispel the view of onlookers – that Israel is merrily dancing its way to an oppressive future fuelled by a toxic mix of right-wing nationalism, religious conservatism and economic pragmatism. Not without a concerted effort will Israel change its course, and as it stands there is no one at the helm willing to engender such a change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.