The inauguration in March of Azerbaijan’s first-ever embassy in Israel marks the burgeoning of relations between the two countries just as Baku’s ties with Tehran hit rock bottom, according to Mukhtar Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s first envoy to Israel.
The landmark diplomatic move represents the apex of a three-decade-old, covert and overt relationship rooted in a centuries-long affinity between the two nations, which has blossomed from a people to people relationship to a vast robust security and energy-related focus, Mammadov told JNS.
“Our political relationship is built on a strong and solid foundation between the Azerbaijani and Jewish people going back centuries,” he said during an interview from his Tel Aviv office. “This was at the core of mutual understanding and respect [we have] for each other.”
The decades of close relations are now set to move to the next stage, he added.
“The opening of the embassy is a catalyst and instrument to make this relationship wider and deeper,” said Mammadov. “We see a lot more opportunities on both sides.”
He noted that Israeli President Issac Herzog is slated to make an official visit to Baku at the end of the month, becoming the second Israeli president to visit Azerbaijan after Shimon Peres’s trip nearly 15 years ago. Herzog’s visit will come on the heels of last month’s visit to Baku by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.
Israel has operated an embassy in Baku since 1993, the year after official relations were established between the two countries. Indeed, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
For Israel, ties with Azerbaijan—an oil-rich, secular country with a Shi’ite Muslim majority and which shares a border with Iran—are of strategic importance, both as a conduit for reconnaissance but also because it supplies Israel an estimated 40 percent of its oil needs and is a leading purchaser of Israeli military hardware.
“Our history with Israel is well known to many countries,” the ambassador said obliquely.
Violence from Iran
As ties with Israel have blossomed, Iranian incitement against Azerbaijan has devolved into violence.
In January, a brazen attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran killed the diplomatic mission’s chief of security, while an Azerbaijani MP critical of Iran faced an assassination attempt in Baku.
Since then, the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran has remained shuttered.
After Azerbaijan’s 2020 war with Armenia, Iran held two military exercises along the border, and then opened a consulate general in Armenia as it expands its military ties with Azerbaijan’s arch-enemy.
The intricate geopolitical dance of alliances as the countries juggle interests in the region even supersedes religion; Iran shares the same religion as Azerbaijan, while Armenia is Christian.
“Our relations with Iran are at their lowest level in our history,” said Mammadov, adding, “We want stable relations with all our neighbors.”
Some 25 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran.
Turkey ties—we want our friends to be friends
At the same time, Mammadov said that he would like to see Israel and Azerbaijan’s top ally, Turkey, improve relations.
“Our wish is for our friends to be friends,” he said. “We are ready to support that effort.”
He noted that after the recent earthquake in Turkey, Azerbaijani and Israeli rescue teams were the largest ones on the ground.
“This has not gone without notice,” he said. “We are hopeful for the [complete] normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey,” he said, speaking just days before Turkey’s national elections.
Trade and tourism
Mammadov said that he hopes to buttress trade ties with Israel, including in the fields of tourism, agriculture, investments and technology, to the high level of existing political ties. He noted that at the end of March a cybersecurity center was established in Baku in cooperation with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, while a delegation of Azerbaijani teachers is currently training with the ORT Schools in Israel.
Given the centuries of historic ties between the two countries, the ambassador sees potential for growth in tourism.
About 50,000 Israelis visited Azerbaijan in 2019 before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, he said. There are currently nine direct flights a week (including six Azerbaijani and three Israeli carriers) with easy visa procedures—either online or on arrival in Baku—for Israeli visitors who wish to make the less than three-hour trip.
“We have no anti-Semitism, and a multicultural environment with synagogues and kosher food,” he noted.
Israel’s spirit of innovation—and cuisine
Over the last two months, Mammadov said that he has been struck by the warmth of Israelis, which he attributes in part to the 80,000 strong Jews from Azerbaijan who moved to Israel.
The Azerbaijani ambassador was unphased by the Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel last week, some of which triggered sirens in Tel Aviv. “This is nothing new for me,” he said, citing decades of conflict with Armenia.
In the meantime, he said has been “loving” Israel, singling out the food scene.
“Israel is known as the start-up nation, [but] I really like the chefs’ innovation in cuisine,” he said.
“There is innovation and creativity in the genes here, be it in hi-tech or any other aspect of life, striving to make life better with innovation,” he concluded.