Israel and Azerbaijan have routinely found natural areas of synergy in their alliance, from defense and energy cooperation, to the 2,000-year-old Jewish community in the Muslim-majority country and the thriving Azerbaijani immigrant community in Israel, to shared values such as multiculturalism and religious tolerance.
Today, recent geopolitical developments have made clear that, 30 years after the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship was diplomatically formalized in 1992, the ties between Jerusalem and Baku are as strategically significant as ever.
The possibility of a new Iran nuclear deal has reportedly prompted Israel to explore strengthening its defense ties with Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor. Although they are both Shi’a-majority nations, Azerbaijan and Iran could not be more different when it comes to religious freedom and their relationship with Israel. Further, tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran are on the rise over the persecuted ethnic Azerbaijani minority living in northern Iran.
Although Israel has generally attempted to maintain a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, Israeli-Russian ties have soured over Moscow’s attempt to shutter the operations of the Jewish Agency for Israel in the country.
Given the deteriorating strategic interest of any nation to align itself with Russia, which is currently a pariah in the international community, it is important to recognize that Azerbaijan’s regional adversary in Eurasia is arguably Moscow’s strongest ally.
Although Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire at the conclusion of their war in 2020, the countries’ decades-long conflict persists. On Aug. 31, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held meetings in Brussels and Moscow to discuss normalizing relations and resolving border disputes.
Armenia’s continued injection of Russia into the agenda of these negotiations is hardly surprising, given the lockstep ties between Yerevan and Moscow. Armenia is home to two Russian military bases. Additionally, it was the only country to oppose the Council of Europe’s decision to suspend Russia in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh praised the Kremlin’s recognition of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent republics.
For Israel, Armenia’s allegiance to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime reinforces the strategic importance of the Jewish state’s relations with Azerbaijan. While Israel takes a neutral position on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Jerusalem must not ignore Russian-Armenian ties while formulating its foreign policy towards Eurasia.
While Israel is frequently maligned for settlement construction in the West Bank, Armenia’s illegal settlement of internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory is largely met with silence.
In the 2020 war, Armenia agreed to fully withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh—the territory that four U.N. resolutions affirm as part of Azerbaijan, yet which Armenia occupied for three decades.
On Aug. 26, Aliyev announced that the Azerbaijani army had moved into the strategic city of Lachin, one of the occupied districts that Armenia agreed to return to Azerbaijan in 2020. Monitored by Russian peacekeepers, the Lachin corridor had connected the Armenian-populated portion of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. Yet earlier in August, Azerbaijan replaced the Lachin corridor by opening a new road, cementing the return of Lachin to the control of Azerbaijani authorities.
During the construction of the road, Azerbaijan took the local Armenian population into account by allowing them to use approximately five kilometers of the area as a temporary road into Armenia until the project’s completion. Nevertheless, the Armenian Foreign Ministry failed to acknowledge Azerbaijan’s sensitivity and condemned “Azerbaijan’s attempts to unilaterally change the legal regime in the Lachin corridor.” Israel, too, receives no acknowledgment from Palestinian leaders for goodwill gestures such as its recent move to increase the number of entry permits for Palestinian workers coming from the Gaza Strip.
The lingering impact of the illegal Armenian settlement of Azerbaijani territory was also brought to light on Aug. 30 with the revelation that a Belgian mine-detecting shepherd dog owned by Azerbaijan’s Mine Clearance Agency died in a mine explosion, while a mine clearance officer sustained serious injuries. “Mines infested by Armenia throughout 30 years of occupation continue to pose serious threat,” tweeted Hikmet Hajiyev, head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration.
Lebanon and Syria
Amid the ongoing maritime border talks between Israel and Lebanon, it is also important to note Lebanon’s role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Following the August 2020 explosion at the Beirut port, Armenian separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that they were prepared to receive 100 to 150 families of Armenian origin from Lebanon, exacerbating the illegal Armenian settlement of the territory. This mirrors a trend that has persisted throughout the Syrian Civil War, as many of the more than 15,000 Syrian-Armenians who could not find a home in Armenia ultimately settled in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has also partnered with Russia on Moscow’s military mission in Syria in support of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
As Israel navigates the complexities of the maritime talks with Lebanon, and as the Syrian Civil War mercilessly continues with no end in sight, it is incumbent upon Israeli policymakers to internalize Armenia’s troubling associations with Israel’s northern neighbors.
Ultimately, short- and long-term geopolitical developments in the Middle East and Eurasia mean that Israel’s alliance with Azerbaijan will place the Jewish state on the right side of history.
Jacob Kamaras is the managing editor of The San Diego Jewish World, the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and the founder of Stellar Jay Communications, a PR firm representing Azerbaijan.