As tensions flared up between Azerbaijan and Armenia two weeks ago, Israel unexpectedly found herself backing the same side as the Turks and the Syrian rebels. Coupled by arms deals with Azerbaijan, and a long history and bad blood with Armenia, it’s not surprising to see Turkey, along with her Syrian allies, backing the Azeris in this conflict. Seeing Israel backing the Azeris, on the other hand, came somewhat as a surprise to many Hellenic nationals and Westerners alike. Similar to Turkey, Israel inked arms deals with Azerbaijan and maintains robust trade relations with the Muslim country (Israel is Azerbaijan’s third-largest export country after Italy and Turkey). However, it is not history that led Israel into Azerbaijan’s hands; rather, it’s the present and the future.
Since the establishment of modern-day Israel in 1948, the nation has been in a state of emergency and has constantly been under existential threat. Therefore, Israel’s foreign policy has always viewed through the glasses of realpolitik, especially when evaluating relations with surrounding countries. It helps explain Israeli decision-making on the international stage, not being a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, never signing or ratifying the Biological Weapons Convention and never ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention, to mention a few. Currently, one of Israel’s top existential threats is the Iranian nuclear program.
By maintaining close relations with Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor, it grants the Jerusalem access to one of Iran’s borders. Yes, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are neighboring countries of Iran as well, but they have the Persian Gulf separating them. Azerbaijan shares a land border with Iran—a much more valuable attribute that allows Israel to execute preemptive and preventive attacks against Iran. When the Mossad secretly snuck out of Iran with the entire nuclear archives, it was believed that the Israeli agents smuggled it out through the border with Azerbaijan. There have also been reports in the past claiming that Azerbaijan would allow the Israeli Air Force to use its territory as a launching pad for an airstrike against Iran.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan is a net exporter of energy. Until about a decade ago, Israel had no energy resources and was forced to import them all. Other than Egypt, Israel was unable to get many energy needs from neighboring countries in the Middle East. For energy security purposes, Israel had to import crude oil from a variety of countries, one of them being Azerbaijan. Even until 2019, Azerbaijan has still been exporting $1.33 billion worth of mineral fuels, oils and distillation products to Israel.
The goods that Azerbaijan provides, however, come with a price. Israel’s trade with Azerbaijan is mostly security and military-related—arms and ammunition (including parts and accessories), aircraft and aerospace, machinery, optical equipment and more. These goods comprise nearly 50 percent of Israel’s export to Azerbaijan to be precise.
Without picking a side in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, in Israel’s eyes the relationship with Azerbaijan is not about what is moral or right, but about survivability and practicality. As long as Azerbaijan plays a role in providing Israel with energy security and national security, Israel will continue to support Azerbaijan. Israel does not have the luxury to lose Azerbaijan as an ally; it is more of a necessity than anything else. That said, this does not excuse Israel or any other arms provider on either side of the conflict from being partially responsible for the casualties and destruction due to the use of these weapons.
If Iran had never posed a threat to Israel’s existence, I am certain that Israel’s trade relations with Azerbaijan would have looked much different than the current trade. And in terms of the Azeri-Armenian conflict, Israel would have just stayed out and never have gotten involved in the first place.
Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.