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Why are relations between Azerbaijan and Israel developing now?

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets Azerbaijani Defense Minister General Zakir Hasanov in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 03, 2022. [Israeli Ministry of Defense - Anadolu Agency]
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets Azerbaijani Defense Minister General Zakir Hasanov in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 03, 2022. [Israeli Ministry of Defense - Anadolu Agency]

Azerbaijan's announcement that it's going to open an embassy in Israel came as no surprise. It reflects the strong ties between the two countries for nearly three decades in the political, security and military fields. While there is an Israeli Embassy in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, the latter only had commercial and tourist offices in Tel Aviv. This in part reveals the nature of the diplomatic strategy Azerbaijan has begun to follow in recent years, which has reached the point of normalisation agreements.

For a number of reasons, Azerbaijan topped the list of countries that Israel set its sights on, including its extremely important geopolitical location which extends beyond the Caucasus. This places it in Russia's backyard and has helped it to cover 48 per cent of Israel's oil and gas needs. Oil and gas exports are the mainstay of the Azerbaijani economy. The government is looking to develop its resources as it overlooks the Caspian Sea and contains enormous wealth, the distribution of which is complicated with six countries surrounding the inland sea.

Moreover, Azerbaijan is physically close to Iran but there is growing tension in their relationship, not least due to Tehran's position on the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Then there is the fact that Azerbaijan is an important market for arms deals with Israel estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, and the two cooperate on intelligence and security, with routine exchanges of confidential information about their enemies.

All of this suggests that Azerbaijan's decision to open an embassy in Tel Aviv is the renewal of a regional alliance. Their old and distinguished relationship was established after the fall of the Soviet Union and they have become closer over the past decade. Israeli companies provided high-quality weapons to Azerbaijan and Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku in 2016 to sign a series of agreements. Azerbaijan, however, refused to open an embassy in Tel Aviv despite all attempts to persuade it otherwise; it agreed to have commercial representation at most only last year. So why agree to open the embassy now? What has changed enough to change Baku's mind?

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Both Azerbaijan and Iran are Shia Muslim countries, but Israel says that Baku is committed to the occupation state's security, and that it has become an outpost for the Mossad spy agency. It is the first Shia Muslim country to open an official embassy in Tel Aviv; in doing so, it joins the Sunni-led countries of Egypt, Jordan, Albania, the UAE, Bahrain and Kosovo.

A remarkable development preceded the announcement about the Azerbaijani Embassy; Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Baku. The visit had several objectives ignored by the media which are likely to have included Baku receiving technological support from Tel Aviv in exchange for Israel getting more oil. Military and security issues probably dominated discussions, and for a good reason; Azerbaijan's army uses Israeli-made attack drones, and has a large drone factory built by an Israeli company.

Gantz's visit coincided with fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, not only in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, but also on the eastern borders of Armenia. The latter thus viewed the visit with concern as providing assistance to its neighbour.

Azerbaijani Jews hold stage a protest against Armenia's cross-border attacks on Azerbaijan in Petah Tikva, Israel on October 15, 2020. [Mostafa Alkharouf - Anadolu Agency]

Azerbaijani Jews hold stage a protest against Armenia's cross-border attacks on Azerbaijan in Petah Tikva, Israel on October 15, 2020. [Mostafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

It is no longer a secret that Israel is an important strategic partner for Azerbaijan, with technology and information flowing in exchange for oil. Most oil in Israel comes from Baku. Israeli electronic companies now operate under foreign registration in Azerbaijan to build its defence system and develop its information technology industry. Iran claims that Israel conducts intelligence operations within Azerbaijan.

Israelis know that the purposes of Gantz's visit may be secret, but are linked to Azerbaijan's behaviour in recent years, which suggests a change in its perceptions of the regional context. Azerbaijan has come to realise that a combination of its mineral wealth and military power, as well as the decline of Russia's military capabilities and the energy crisis are all developments in its favour. It is within this context that Gantz made his visit to Baku.

Another Israeli assessment of the visit is that it was timed to coincide with the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russia is involved in Ukraine and is not interested in the Caucasus, but Turkiye, which wants to expand its influence to the east, fits Azerbaijan's desire to create some contiguity with it, especially given Europe's search for new energy sources. This has given Azerbaijan an economic boost; its gas and oil can replace Russian supplies, so Baku needs a land corridor that passes through Turkiye to Europe, in a way that intersects with Israel's approach.

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel has established a new section called Eurasia, which includes links with countries such as Azerbaijan. The section contains seventeen Russian Jewish diplomats assigned to develop relations with "Eurasia" countries, in coordination with Mossad, military intelligence and the Prime Minister's Office. This confirms that the Israeli approach is consistent with its policy devised after its foundation in 1948 known as "stretching the edges". This calls for igniting strife and creating crises amongst the Arabs, taking advantage of ethnic, racial and sectarian diversity to stir up the people against their governments, with the aim of paralysing capabilities on the perimeters of the Arab and Islamic world.

"Stretching the edges" with regard to Azerbaijan was based on ethnic, military and political elements, including fuelling its ethnic, racial and sectarian differences with neighbouring countries, especially Iran, and the sectarian difference with Turkiye, despite the latter's alliance with Azerbaijan.

This confirms that Israel is seeking influence over the formation of strategies around the world, and is not confining itself to its regional-geographical framework. In addition, it is moving in parallel with the US towards the Muslim states of central Asia to create a strong Israeli presence therein, and to create barriers to prevent Arab and Islamic influence from reaching them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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