Israeli President Isaac Herzog will pay a state visit to Azerbaijan, a Shi’ite Muslim country bordering Iran, at the invitation of President Ilham Aliyev on May 30-31, Herzog’s office announced on Sunday.
Herzog will be accompanied by Minister of Health Moshe Arbel, who will hold a working meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart Teymur Musayev.
Their discussion will focus on strengthening cooperation in the field of health, with an emphasis on doctor training, emergency assessments and digital health initiatives. A significant milestone during the visit will be the signing ceremony of a cooperation agreement in the health sector.
The Israeli president will lay a wreath at the grave of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, who was also the father of the current president. Herzog will also pay his respects at a cemetery dedicated to Azerbaijanis killed by the Soviet Army during the events of “Black January” as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, and to Azerbaijanis killed in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988–1994.
Moreover, Herzog and his wife, Michal, will participate in a festive event commemorating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. This occasion will provide an opportunity to engage with the Jewish community in Azerbaijan.
The trip comes on the heels of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit in April.
A signal to Iran
Professor Ze’ev Khanin, who lectures on political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said that tensions between Azerbaijan and its southern neighbor Iran inform the context of Herzog’s visit. The two countries share a 475-mile border.
“Azerbaijan and Israel are strategic partners, and we have a common enemy, which is Iran,” Khanin said.
Iran, he explained, has two strategic fears regarding Azerbaijan’s growing relationship with Israel.
First, Azerbaijan is a significant purchaser of Israeli arms, and Iran fears that Azerbaijan could serve as a platform for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The second fear, Khanin said, concerns the Iranian province of Southern Azerbaijan, which is home to 30 million ethnic Azeris. “That’s three times the size of Azerbaijan, and they are the biggest ethnic minority in Iran,” the professor explained.
“They used to have cultural and administrative autonomy, which they don’t have anymore. The ayatollahs are afraid that Baku is stimulating and supporting the separatist movements, at least morally,” he said, adding, “But Iran also supports radical Islamic separatists in Azerbaijan.”
Khanin stressed that Herzog’s visit also sends a more positive signal to another regional player: Turkey. Azerbaijanis are ethnically Turkish, and Baku mediated between Jerusalem and Ankara last year under the previous Israeli government. “This helped lead to the relaxation of tensions” between Israel and Turkey,” Khanin said.
“Turkey is much less interested in being anti-Israeli and scoring points with the Arab world,” he said.
Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijani independence in 1991 and already has an embassy in Baku. An estimated 20,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan today.