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With Eyes On Neighbors, Azerbaijan And Israel Intensify Ties

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  • With Eyes On Neighbors, Azerbaijan And Israel Intensify Ties


    By Cnaan LiphshizSeptember 17, 2013 1:21pm

    Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, left, meets with Israeli President
    Shimon Peres at the presidential palace in Baku, June 28, 2009. (Amos
    Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)

    BAKU, Azerbaijan (JTA) - With less than a month to go until
    presidential elections, the moustachioed smile of Ilham Aliyev
    stares down at his countrymen from giant posters scattered around
    this bustling metropolis on the Caspian Sea.

    The Azerbaijani president has been in office since 2003 and is widely
    expected to be re-elected, extending the leadership of the Aliyev
    clan into its third decade. Aliyev's father, Heydar, held the post
    for a decade prior to his son's ascension.

    Ilham Aliyev's tenure has brought greater prosperity to this young
    country, but it has come at a price: Widespread corruption and human
    rights abuses have earned Azerbaijan a dismal ranking in a survey
    of democratic standards in 166 countries conducted last year by the
    Economist magazine.

    But to the West - especially to Israel - Aliyev is a trusted friend
    and the key to a transformation that has developed oil-rich Azerbaijan
    from a small nation in Iran's shadow to a strategic ally and an avid
    consumer of Israeli arms.

    "The partnership between Israel and Azerbaijan is complicated by
    political factors, but ultimately it is moving forward because
    it makes sense from an economical point of view," said Oded Eran,
    a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and ex-director
    of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. "Azerbaijan
    is reliable enough as a supplier of oil for Israel, and Israel is a
    reliable supplier of high-tech and arms."

    Israel has long cultivated ties with this Muslim nation, which has
    enormous reserves of oil and natural gas and a 380-mile southern border
    with Iran. The Jewish state opened an embassy in Baku in 1992, just one
    year after Azerbaijan gained independence from the former Soviet Union.

    But Azerbaijan, mindful of antagonizing its neighbor, the partnership
    has mostly flourished in the shadows. Azerbaijan still does not have
    an embassy in Israel, despite expanding bilateral trade now pegged
    at $3 billion a year. In 2009, Aliyev compared relations with Israel
    to an iceberg: "nine-tenths submerged."

    The elder Aliyev, a former KGB boss, handled the relationship with
    Israel "with great care during those early and unstable times,"
    according to Avinoam Idan, a senior research fellow at John Hopkins
    University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

    In recent years, however, the partnership has grown much more open -
    and more robust.

    In 2011, the Israeli defense contractor Aeronautics opened a factory
    for military drones in Azerbaijan. The following year, the state-owned
    Israel Aerospace Industries sold Azerbaijan $1.6 billion worth of
    weapons - a deal that amounted to 43 percent of Azerbaijan's total
    expenditure on arms in 2012. Azerbaijan now supplies a whopping 40
    percent of Israel's oil consumption.

    In May, Elmar Mammadyarov became the first Azerbaijani foreign minister
    to visit Israel. Mammadyarov met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
    and President Shimon Peres along with a dozen other ministers and
    promised that the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy was "just a matter
    of time."

    Israel's increasingly cozy ties with Azerbaijan have grown in
    the wake of a crisis in the country's relations with Iran. Though
    traditionally mistrustful of the Islamic Republic's penchant for
    exporting revolutionary zeal, Azerbaijan had strived to maintain good
    relations, signing a non-aggression pact with Tehran in 2005.

    But relations deteriorated in 2009 after Iran cracked down on the
    large minority of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran. When Azerbaijan
    protested, Iranian officials threatened to raise territorial claims.

    Israel was named as a factor in the dispute last year when Azerbaijani
    officials revealed plans by local extremists, aided by Iran, to blow
    up the Israeli and American embassies in Baku.

    Also last year, Iran accused Azerbaijan of helping Israel assassinate
    Iranian nuclear scientists and gather intelligence. The situation
    was inflamed further by a Reuters report that Israel planned to use
    Azerbaijani airfields in the event of a strike on Iranian nuclear

    Israeli and Azerbaijani officials denied the report.

    "These reports sound like James Bond stories, and that's exactly what
    they are," said Raphael Harpaz, Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan,
    at his office at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

    That said, "Azerbaijan has taken a courageous stand against efforts to
    destabilize the region," Harpaz added - an obvious reference to Iran.

    Harpaz said anti-Semitic sentiment, prevalent in much of the Muslim
    world, is virtually nonexistent in Azerbaijan, a secular country with
    guaranteed freedom of worship and - unlike its abstemious southern
    neighbor - teeming with bars and nightclubs where scantily dressed
    women dance to Turkish and Russian pop hits.

    "Azerbaijan's economic success and relatively liberal attitudes form
    a contrast with Iran's restrictive policies and a viable alternative,
    which is probably making the Mullah regime uncomfortable," Idan said.

    Despite Baku's attempts to keep the peace, American diplomats believe
    Azerbaijan considers Iran "a major, even existential security threat,"
    according to an assessment in a leaked diplomatic cable from 2009. The
    country's cooperation with Israel "flows from this shared recognition,"
    the cable read.

    Idan says Azerbaijan's closeness with Israel is actually aimed at a
    different regional foe: Armenia, Azerbaijan's neighbor to the west,
    against whom Azerbaijan has fought two wars in the last century over
    the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

    Aliyev considers the conflict unfinished, which has led to American
    and European reluctance to sell him weapons he can't obtain elsewhere.

    Israel has no such qualms.

    Israel, too, may have broader reasons for cultivating ties with
    Azerbaijan. The Jewish state has long sought out non-Arab moderate
    Muslim nations as allies as a counterweight to the hostile Muslim
    nations that surround it.

    Eldar Mamedov, an Azerbaijan-born political adviser at the European
    Parliament in Brussels, wrote in January that Israel sees Azerbaijan
    as a replacement for Turkey, whose once-close partnership with Israel
    hasn't recovered from the 2010 storming by Israeli commandos of a
    Turkish ship bound for Gaza.

    But Fuad Akhundov, a historian and government spokesman, told JTA
    that personal bonds between Jews and Azerbaijanis over the centuries
    has helped cement the bond.

    "Jews here have always been perceived as promoters of progress,
    part of the elite, as something which holds potential," Akhundov said.

    "These positive feelings had a role in the establishment of warm
    bilateral ties."

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