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How can Israel navigate the divide between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

How can Israel navigate the divide between Azerbaijan and Armenia?
Dr. Eran Lerman: Israel faces a supreme challenge from Iran, and Azerbaijan is important for us in that regard.
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The Jerusalem Post 31.07.2020


When two countries fight, their hope and expectation is that their friends – even only casual acquaintances – will stand by their side.

Israel knows this feeling well from the point of view of one of those countries involved in a fight with other countries – and, more recently, with non-country actors – in the region.

For instance, just this week Jerusalem would have loved to see statements of support from friends like Australia and India, Greece and Britain, Argentina and Brazil, for rebuffing a Hezbollah infringement of its sovereignty.

Israel has also learned not to hold its breath, with countries explaining that they have to juggle their realpolitik interests in the region.

In recent days, however, Israel has felt this dilemma from the other side of the fence: not as a participant in a fight, but rather as that third country to whom two friends, albeit one much closer to Israel than the other, are looking for support: Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The long enmity between the two countries, which extends back more than a century and erupts intermittently into wars or border clashes, flared up earlier this month with border skirmishes some 300 km. north of the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh region, the focal point of a war in the early 1990s that ended with the Armenians occupying some 20% of Azeri territory. So far at least 16 people have been killed in the newest fighting.

Israel has critical strategic relations with Azerbaijan – primarily because of its geography on the border of Iran, but also because it supplies Israel an estimated 40% of its oil needs and is one of the leading purchasers of Israeli arms in the world. And Israel has cordial relations with Armenia, which recently sent its first ambassador to Israel to open up a new embassy in Tel Aviv.

And both have expectations of Israel.

The Azeris, with whom Israel has had a close relationship for some three decades, have let it be known that they would like to hear statements of Israeli support. And the Armenians have made it clear – including publicly via an interview Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan gave Thursday to The Jerusalem Post – that they want Israel to stop arms sales to its enemy, which are being used against it.

So what is Israel to do? Simple, as one diplomatic official said, stay out of it – completely out of it, and not allow itself to be dragged into a matter not its own.

Which is essentially what the country has done. Despite appeals from both sides to show support, the Foreign Ministry has sufficed with issuing one bland statement last week expressing concern at the violence and the hope that the sides will soon reach a ceasefire.

That statement, obviously, does not satisfy either side, but sends a clear message to both to have realistic expectations of Israel and appreciate that it – like they – balances various geopolitical considerations.

Government officials are reticent to talk openly about the matter because of its diplomatic sensitivity, but Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council and now vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, summed up the prevailing sentiment in Jerusalem when he said “at the end of the day we face a supreme challenge from Iran, and Azerbaijan is important for us in that – and that has colored a number of decisions for Israel, not all of them easy.”

Azerbaijan, he said, is very important for Israel. “Armenia should be a friend, we have no quarrel with the Armenians. But Azerbaijan is of very, very great strategic importance to Israel because of where it is, and because some 25% of the Iranian people are Azeri.”

A 2009 US diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks that was sent by Washington’s political/economic counselor in its embassy in Baku at the time, Rob Gaverick, sums up Israel’s interests well: “Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are based strongly on pragmatism and a keen appreciation of priorities. Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country, and as a market for military hardware.”

How important is Azerbaijan for Israel? In 2012, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman said that “Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France.” What was true then, is equally true today. And that also means that it is much more important to Israel than Armenia.

Besides, Lerman said, “Quite frankly in this case [the Azeri-Armenian conflict] there are no saints.”

Given Baku’s importance to Jerusalem, isn’t Israel worried that if it does not supply the Azeris with the diplomatic support they are looking for this will cause problems in this critical relationship?

No, since this is a relationship that very much runs both ways. Israel gets a friend on Iran’s northern border and an oil supplier, and Azerbaijan gets access to weapons of a quality that it is unable to buy in the west because of an arms embargo. It also gets access – through Jewish groups in Washington – to Congress and the US administration. The Armenians have a very strong lobby in Washington, the Azeris do not, and over the years have turned to Jewish groups in Washington for assistance.

Besides, if Baku comes to Jerusalem disappointed that it did not side with them fully, Israel can turn the tables. Despite the close relationship the countries have had for years, the Azeris can be counted on to always vote against Israel at the UN and in other international forums.

When Israel expresses its disappointment about this, the Azeris say that as a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, they need the countries in that group to support it diplomatically in the dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and that backing Israel in international forums could jeopardize that support.

This is also the reason the Azeris give for never having opened an embassy in Israel. Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s top weapons customers, yet doesn’t have an embassy in Tel Aviv. Why not? Same reason, they are afraid of angering other Muslim countries whose support they need on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Does Israel like this situation? Obviously not. But it is willing to put up with it because of the realization that Azerbaijan has other interests as well. It now expects Azerbaijan to demonstrate that same sort of understanding to Israel’s balancing its interests and wanting to stay out of the recent flare up with Armenia.

As to the Armenians, disappointed that Israel sells arms to its enemy, Jerusalem also has a ready reply to them as well: What about your relations with Iran?

Armenia, which like Azerbaijan also borders Iran, has a robust diplomatic, trade and even defense relationship with the Islamic Republic.

For instance, in October, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian visited Tehran and told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Armenia remains committed to closer ties with Iran despite the American sanctions.

“Our position is that our relations with Iran must be beyond geopolitical influences as much as possible because we are neighbors and have many common interests and we need to cooperate for many more centuries and millennia,” Pashinian was quoted as saying.

In 2017, Armenia’s defense minister at the time, Vigen Sargsyan, said during a visit to Tehran that “Armenia seeks to expand its cooperation with Iran in the defense sphere.”

So when the Armenians come to Israel with complaints about arms sales to its enemies, Jerusalem can reply by highlighting Armenia’s close ties with Israel’s own worst enemy. In realpolitik, sometimes your friends – looking after their own interests – play footsie with your enemies. Azerbaijan does it, Armenia does it… and so does Israel.

Picture of אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

Dr. Lerman is deputy director of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. He teaches in the Middle East studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and in post-graduate programs at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College. He is an expert on Israel’s foreign relations, and on the Middle East. A third-generation Sabra, he holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and a mid-career MPA from Harvard University.

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