The Ties Between Israel and Azerbaijan

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Israel – Azerbaijan: an alliance in search of renewal

Summary

The 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh shed a light on an alliance not openly called one as such: that between Israel and Azerbaijan. As was the case with Turkey, Israel made a decisive contribution to Baku’s victory in the conflict. Contrary to Ankara, Tel-Aviv supplied its Azerbaijani ally with a support that was silent but no less formidably effective. This support was part of a direct line of a fruitful military-technical collaboration on some of the most sophisticated arms exported by Israel, amongst them drones and missiles. Baku’s revanchism regarding the contentious plateau shared with Armenia has to a great degree structured the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership over the last thirty years. However, after Baku’s military victory Israel and Azerbaijan now have to face a major challenge: that of reinventing their alliance.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh that broke out in 2020 shed a light on Turkey’s role as Baku’s principal source of political and military support in its revisionist plan to reconquer the contentious plateau. As a discreet but nonetheless active partner of Azerbaijan’s, the material assistance that Israel supplied to the Azerbaijani forces proved to be decisive in their offensive’s success. The Hebrew state’s objective and silent support for Baku may have come as a surprise.  Israel’s sympathy could in fact have been more on the side of the Armenians – a people who had undergone a genocide – or the Israelis could at least have adopted a policy of benevolent neutrality during the conflict. In fact, there was nothing of the kind and Armenia which had just opened a diplomatic mission in Israel in June 2020 recalled its ambassador the following October, against the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh and deliveries of Israeli arms to the Azerbaijani armed forces [1]. Israel’s strong support for Azerbaijan in this conflict is part of a largely regional reading of the security challenges crystallised by the Nagorno-Karabakh question: Iran, of course, but also the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Hebrew state’s image in the Muslim world with regard to the Palestinian issue. This paper aims to examine Israel’s motivations in supporting Azerbaijan: what were Israel’s interests in this crisis? What dividends did Tel-Aviv expect to gain from its contribution to Baku’s military victory? How might relations between Israel and Azerbaijan develop after the Nagorno-Karabakh war?

The strategic foundations of a multifaceted relationship

Even though Israel and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in April 1992, even today there is still no Azerbaijani diplomatic representation in Israel. Whereas the Israelis opened an embassy in Baku in 1993, the Azerbaijanis on their part have repeatedly delayed the opening of their own embassy in Tel-Aviv, preferring to stick with the informal and practical channel of intergovernmental communication that the national carrier Azerbaijan Airlines’ representative office offers on the spot [2]. This rapprochement formalises an understanding that developed at the end of the 1980s, during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), when the Israelis supplied the Azerbaijani forces with surface-to-air Stinger missile launchers [3]. Baku’s refusal to formalise diplomatic links with Israel can be interpreted as circumspection regarding its large Iranian neighbor. But it also allows the characteristic ambiguity of the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership to be maintained. As such in 2009 president Ilham Aliyev, using the metaphor of an iceberg, described the bilateral relationship with the Hebrew state as being “nine tenths submerged” [4]. Visiting Baku in 2012, Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel’s foreign minister, described his country’s relationship with Azerbaijan as “more important for Israel than [the then existing relationship] with France” [5].

Beyond the presence in Azerbaijan of an old Jewish community (the Tats, or mountain Jews), the Azerbaijanis and Israelis have developed their relationship around three pillars: their relations with Iran, the economy – with strategic cooperation in energy and military technology – and the mutual benefits in terms of their image they consider can be gained from their ties. In the context of regional geopolitical confrontations (or even global [6]) between Israel and Iran, the Hebrew state’s relationship with Azerbaijan offers it a strategic depth that slots into its political and military ‘three circles’ security strategy [7]. Forming Israel’s bridgehead in the Caucasus on the northern flank of the Islamic Republic, Azerbaijan has been portrayed in some analyses as a potential platform from which Israel could, in the event of conflict, undertake operations against Iran. If this hypothesis does seem exaggerated [8] intelligence gathering operations cannot be excluded [9]. On Baku’s side the partnership with Israel helps to keep its Iranian neighbor with whom it has a distrustful relationship at a distance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the election of the overtly pan-Turkist Abulfaz Elchibey as president of Azerbaijan did immense harm to relations with Iran: the new president had campaigned on the idea of a rapprochement between his country, Turkey and Israel, and had called upon Iranian Azeris to rise up and fight for their independence [10]. It should be borne in mind that ethnically speaking there are more Azeris in Iran (and certainly in Teheran alone) than there are in Azerbaijan: there are 15 million in the Islamic Republic as opposed to 8 million in the small republic in the southern Caucasus [11]. A “loyal minority” to central power, to which it has supplied many senior figures up to the highest levels of the Iranian state, the Iranian Azeris have been suspected of potentially harboring a ‘fifth column’, all the more so because the Nagorno-Karabakh affair still constitutes a challenge for Iran’s foreign policy.

Baku and Tel-Aviv have established an economic partnership underpinned by exchanges in two strategic areas: military-technical cooperation and energy. In fact, Israel imports more than 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan, via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline [12]. Although the amount of business trade has diminished over the last few years, Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Israel gives it access to an arsenal of combat systems stuffed with cutting-edge technologies. Since 1991 Baku has obtained nearly $7 billion worth of Israeli military equipment [13]. If this figure seams modest for such a long period, it must be put into perspective: the volume of trade between Israel and Azerbaijan reached in 2020 nearly $200 million [14], and in total the Hebrew state exported $8.3 billion of arms in 2020, which made that year the second best after 2017 ($9.2 billion) for Israeli arms exports [15]. In addition, the military-technical partnership between the two countries must be assessed on a qualitative rating rather than a quantitative one. Azerbaijan has bought equipment from Israeli arms traders for the following reasons: to diversify and balance out arms contracts signed with the Russians;  to acquire and maintain qualitative superiority over the pro-Armenian forces entrenched in Nagorno-Karabakh thanks to weapons systems that incorporate ground-breaking technology; and to be able to defend its offshore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea against any possible intimidation from Iran, a threat comparable to the one Iran exerts on Israel  in the eastern Mediterranean [16].

Azerbaijani arms orders to Israel

From the information above Israel emerges as the source of the new Azerbaijani flotilla: over and above the 6 OPV-62 offshore patrol vessels ordered in 2013, in the same year Baku ordered 6 Shaldag fast patrol vessels produced in Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2019 in a small naval yard built by the Israelis east of Baku [17]. Another strand of the shared military-technical cooperation is anti-tank warfare, necessary given the number of armored vehicles deployed amongst the pro-Armenian forces positioned in Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has not only acquired guided anti-tank missile systems but also drones. The drones’ element of the military-technical cooperation between the two countries is certainly the one that is the most striking, particularly given the massive use of these systems in 2020. Since 2007, the year when the Azerbaijanis placed their first order for Aerostar observation drones with the Israeli Aeronautics defense Systems, the armed forces of the little Caucasian republic have been almost entirely equipped with drones of Israeli manufacture. Just prior to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is estimated to have had almost 120 tactical and 500 kamikaze drones available, the vast majority of them Israeli [18]. It has to be said although that there has been much more talk about the 50 Bayraktar TB2 drones bought from the Turkish company Baykar Makina than of the Israeli UAVs, mainly because of Ankara’s widely proclaimed and publicized support for Baku. As well as observation drones (Aerostar and Searcher, acquired in 2011 [19]) Israel has also supplied tactical drones (Heron 450 and 900) [20] or again ‘loitering munitions’ [21] (IAI’s Harop, Elbit Systems’ SkyStriker and the Orbiter-1K from Aeronautics Defense Systems) [22]. Almost the whole range of Israeli drones can be found in the Azerbaijani armed forces.  Beyond these arms, the Israeli company Elta Systems has carried out digital mapping of whole of Nagorno-Karabakh [23], which gave a resulting considerable advantage to the Azerbaijani forces in the conduct of their operations. Thanks to the digital modelling of the combat environment, drones were responsible for nearly 90% of Armenian losses in tanks, heavy artillery and anti-aircraft defense systems [24]. Finally, during the active phase of the conflict, an air bridge linking the Hebrew state and Azerbaijan through Turkish and Georgian airspace allowed ongoing supply of munitions and equipment by nearly a hundred cargo aircraft [25].

Israeli-Azerbaijani military-technical cooperation, as seen from Tel-Aviv, is also aimed at obtaining some margin of maneuver with regards to the growing Russian military footprint in Syria. Another objective is to balance the arms deliveries made by Russia (or that the Russians could still make) to Syria, or Iran as the case may be, by furnishing cutting edge weaponry to Azerbaijan, the enemy of one of Russia’s allies, Armenia. A similar approach had been adopted by Israel at the end of the 2000s with Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia, that had procured Israeli drones at the time and with the consequences we all know [26].

Turkey, a vector for Israeli interests in Azerbaijan?

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is at a meeting point of actors with competing regional interests. The convergence of Turkey and Israel’s point of view regarding Nagorno-Karabakh are in direct opposition to those of Iran and Russia, their geopolitical competitors in various areas in the Middle East. Whereas Iran is considered by Israel to be its main existential threat, Russia’s arrival in Syria has tended to bind Turkey a bit more into Russia’s military posture, extending as it does through the Black Sea from the Caucasus to the Levant. Israel’s freedom of action has been checked by the sudden emergence of Russia in its immediate neighborhood in September 2015. The Russian S-400 long range anti-air and anti-missile systems deployed in Syria [27], and more generally the Russian military presence on the ground, complicate things for the Israelis and their strikes against objectives on Syrian territory that are deemed as Iranian or pro-Iranian [28].

However, the Israelis and Turks are opposed to each other on several issues relating to the Eastern Mediterranean, based on competition for the development of offshore hydrocarbon resources. A founder member of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum launched in January 2020 [29], Israel therefore finds itself at the heart of an organisation whose aims directly oppose Ankara’s ambitions to exploit the Levantine gas resources in areas of contested sovereignty off the coast of Cyprus and to redraw the charts of the eastern Mediterranean to its own advantage. From the Arabian Peninsula to the Balkans, an anti-Turk front is emerging, shaped by a refusal to accept Ankara’s revisionist policies in the Mediterranean and the Levant, illustrated by the agreement signed with Tripoli in November 2019 that aims to establish – contested – maritime frontiers between Turkey and Libya [30].

Within this context the reactivation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh appears like a product of the Turkish policy of foreign expansionism, borne on the vector of pan-Turkism. Israel’s contribution to the Azerbaijani victory, beyond diminishing Teheran’s position in the south Caucasus through weakening its Armenian partner, also erodes Russia’s influence insomuch as the Hebrew state supported the military success that has led to the establishment of a Turkish military bridgehead in Azerbaijan, under Russia’s nose. The cease-fire of 10 November, under Moscow’s auspices, ratifies the de facto Turkish military presence in the Caucasian republic [31]. Seen from Tel-Aviv this is a bet that has paid off, one that by diverting Turkish ambitions from the Eastern Mediterranean has channelled them towards the Turkish-speaking regions of the Caucasus and central Asia. In other words, in facilitating Baku’s victory there was also an objective of redirecting Ankara’s geopolitical appetite towards zones where Israel’s vital interests were less at stake. The Turkish presence in the Caucasus, Israel certainly believes, should also help to alleviate the Turkish complex of being landlocked, which gave rise to the doctrine called ‘Blue Homeland’ [32]. The victorious outcome of Baku’s military campaign and the establishment of a platform for the projection of Turkish political and military influence on the shores of the Caspian Sea puts pressure on the fringes of Russia and Iran and as such challenges the influence they had established at the heart of a zone that had been an isolated enclave; until the war Azerbaijan had relied upon an understanding with Iran for access to its enclave of Nakhchivan via the Islamic Republic’s territory. This is no longer necessary, since the agreement of 10 November 2020 created a corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, via Nagorno-Karabakh and the part still controlled by the Armenians. Iran therefore sees itself as having been deprived of potential leverage on its Azerbaijani neighbor. For Israel, faced with growing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria through the 2010s, Turkey plays the role of a counterweight in this crisis.

After the Azerbaijani reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, what’s next?

Baku’s military success in the 2020 campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh poses a challenge to the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship, which is going to have to reinvent itself. For with the contentious plateau now almost completely under Azerbaijani control, one of the pillars of the bilateral relationship has been weakened. In addition, if Iran as already mentioned remains a source of permanent preoccupation for Azerbaijan, the Aktau Convention on the status of the Caspian Sea has however lessened its threat. The weakening of the first pillar risks compromising the balance of the second – the economic partnership. With Nagorno-Karabakh reconquered Baku’s need for latest generation arms will be less pressing and there is a risk in the medium term that arms’ sales will tail off. Baku should nonetheless seek to preserve its qualitative superiority over its Armenian adversary, especially given that the duration of the 10 November 2020 armistice is fixed in 5-year terms. On that subject, everything will depend on what arms Moscow chooses to transfer to Armenia to reequip its forces that were crushed during the 2020 conflict. The Israeli company IAI has declared it is quite shortly awaiting the finalization of contracts amounting to $200 to $300 million with Azerbaijan [33]. It is worth stating that a slackening of arms orders if it were to come to pass would jeopardize the good performance of bilateral trade figures, which did not quite manage to take off over the last decade as the table below suggests.

Development of trade between Israel and Azerbaijan, 2011-2020
(in millions of $US)

In anticipation of a probable slowing down in their bilateral trade, Baku is planning the opening of a commercial representative office in the Hebrew state in 2022 [34]. If this office were to open it could be seen as an intermediary stage before the opening of an Azerbaijani diplomatic representation in Israel. All that would remain would be to determine in which of the two cities – Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem – Baku would open its embassy. And this brings us to the third pillar: issues linked to the image of both countries. Establishing productive relations with Azerbaijan has been all the more to Israel’s profit because it concerns one of the rare Muslim countries for whom the Israel-Palestine issue does not dominate the bilateral agenda. In other words, the political and economic relations between Israel and Azerbaijan have remained impervious to all the crises that have affected this question. In the Hebrew state’s eyes this aspect of the partnership has given true added value to its relations with Azerbaijan and has allowed it to claim it maintains peaceful relations with a non-Arab Shiite country. For its part Baku hopes to take advantage of its closeness to Israel to improve its reputation in Washington and weaken the influence of the Armenian lobby [35]. With the signing of the Abraham Accords and the ongoing normalisation of relations between the Hebrew state and the oil monarchies of the Gulf [36], the paradigm of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations will have to change profoundly. The Hebrew state’s risk of isolation on the world stage is diminishing, for its image in the eyes of Muslim countries should become progressively less diminished in the medium term. The normalisation of political links between Israel and its enemies of yesteryear should go hand in hand with an opening up of their economic links and, why not, the delivery of Gulf oil to the Hebrew state. Put another way, Israel could in the future be less dependent on Azerbaijani oil than it has been over the last fifteen years.

The quest to free Azerbaijan from its enclave position, situated at the confluence of the three empires, Persian, Ottoman and Russian, will in all probability continue and the partnership with Israel will retain its importance. Israel, for its part, will probably continue to include Azerbaijan in its strategy of forging peripheral alliances against Iran. There is a risk of their relationship becoming asymmetrical, to Azerbaijan’s detriment. What recourses are available to Baku? The opening of official diplomatic relations is one, but there is also the need to find new means of encouraging bilateral trade. This is the aim of the proposed Azerbaijani commercial agency in Israel, should it open. Baku could also capitalize on the convergences of Israeli and Turkish views over Nagorno-Karabakh and offer its services in helping to normalize relations between Israel and Turkey. The wounds from the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 have not yet completely healed between Israelis and Turks [37] and the confidence that had existed between them in the 2000s has in any case evaporated. As a privileged partner of both Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan could try to mend the two countries’ ties who coldly ignore each other or who clash diplomatically every time a crisis erupts in Gaza. In any event, the Azerbaijani presidency has already declared, at the end of April 2021, that it is prepared to host a trilateral summit if Ankara and Tel Aviv wish it [38].

In summary, relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are dependent on a fluid extra-regional context that will necessitate a reformulation of their partnership, with the risk that it will otherwise be reduced to a fundamentally geopolitical character based simply on the strategic advantages it can bring both partners.

 

Footnotes:
[1] “Armenia recalls ambassador to Israel over arms sales to Azerbaijan”, Reuters, October 1, 2020.

[2] This office is in Tel-Aviv, on HaHagana Street. See Gallia Lindenstrauss, “Israeli-Azerbaijan relationship: despite the Constraints, a Special Relationship”, Strategic Assessment, INSS, vol.17, N°4, January 2015, p. 69.
[3]
Alexander Murison, “The Ties between Israel and Azerbaijan”, Mideast Security and Policy Studies, no. 110, October 2014, p. 10.
[4] Quote attributed to President Aliyev, extracted from telegrams issued by the US embassy in Baku and reproduced by WikiLeaks. See Gallia Lindenstrauss, “Israeli-Azerbaijan relationship: despite the Constraints, a Special Relationship”, art.cit., p. 69.
[5] Daniel Edelstein, “Potential Gains for Israel after Azerbaijan’s Victory in Nagorno-Karabakh”, Justsecurity.org, 10 March, 2021.
[6] Reference to the Venezuelan ramifications from this confrontation, the issues linked to Venezuela’s supplies of Iranian oil and the alleged Israeli sabotage of tankers from Iran.
[7] This strategy implies making peripheral alliances. Read Jean-Loup Samaan, “Israël et l’Eurasie : le retour de la doctrine de la périphérie ?”, Géoéconomie, 2014/5, no. 72, pp. 139-150.
[8] As the author was able to understand during an interview in March 2013 at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) with a former security advisor of the Israeli prime minister.
[9] During the 1990s the Israelis built electronic listening and intelligence gathering stations along the Iran-Azerbaijan border with Baku’s consent. Emil Avdaliani, “Defying Geography: the Israeli-Azerbaijan Partnership”, BESA Center Perspectives Paper, no. 1, vol. 723, 31 August 2020, p. 3.
[10] Marat Grebennikov, “The Puzzle of a Loyal Minority: Why do Azeris Support the Iranian State?”, Middle East Journal, winter 2013, vol. 67, no. 1, p. 70.
[11] Ibid., p. 65.
[12] Israel does not publish detailed information about its energy supplies, but the figure of 40% for oil is commonly accepted by experts. See for example Galia Lindenstrauss, art. cit., p. 73.
[13] Emil Avdaliani, art. cit., p. 3.
[14] Excluding oil, but including diamond imports by Israel. See Central Bureau of Statistics database.
[15] “Israel’s military exports hit $8.3 billion in 2020, second highest-ever total”, The Times of Israel, 1 June 2021.
[16] The signing of the Aktau Convention on 12 August 2018 by the Caspian Sea states has however warded off the danger that Iranian maritime claims represent for Baku. See also “Convention de la Caspienne : une bonne affaire pour la Russie”, RusNavy Intelligence, 24 August 2018.
[17] SIPRI database. The OPVs are equipped with Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missiles.
[18] Viktor Mukhakovsky, “Nebo Karabakha”, Arsenal Otetchestva, 18 January 2021.
[19] This is the same model sold by IAI to the Russians just before the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008.
[20] Two batches were bought, in 2008 and 2017 respectively.
[21] Or ‘consumable explosive drone’, or again ‘kamikaze drone’.
[22] Batches were acquired in 2014 for the Harop drones, and in 2016 for the two other systems respectively. For details of the drone contracts entered into by Azerbaijan with Israel, see Andreï Frolov, Anastsia Tyniankina, “Voyna novoy epokhi”, Russia in Global Affairs, no. 2, March – April 2021.
[23] “Baku is winning the information war thanks to Israeli contracts”, Intelligence online, 8 December 2020.
[24] Andreï Frolov, Anastsia Tyniankina, art.cit.
[25] These aircraft – Boeing 747s and Il-76TD/MDs – belonged to the civil Azerbaijani airline Silk Way Airlines, and are also used for military transport.
[26] These drones had already been used in Tbilisi’s failed attempt to regain the control over the separatist provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia by force in August 2008. See Luc Mampaey, “Les pyromanes du Caucase. Les complicités du réarmement de la Géorgie”, Note d’analyse, GRIP, 26 September 2008.
[27] The radar range of these systems covers a large area of Israeli territory, including Tel-Aviv airport and some of the country’s main airbases.
[28] Although there is a direct communications link between the Russian airbase at Khmeimim and the Israeli air force’s headquarters, as well as deconfliction measures in the air and at sea, Israeli aircraft generally fire their missiles from Lebanese airspace or from over the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the Levant.
[29] Also called EastMed, this organisation is based in Cairo and today includes Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Italy and France. The EU and the US have observer status while the United Arab Emirates are more or less affiliated.
[30] “Turkey signs maritime boundaries deal with Libya amid exploration row”, Reuters, 28 November 2019.
[31] In particular the provision for a cease-fire control and surveillance centre (article 5). Also read Igor Delanoë, “La Russie face à la pression turque”, Observatoire franco-russe blog, 11 November 2020.
[32] Or Mavi Vatan. Drawn up by the navy in the 2000s, it was taken up by the Turkish president in 2019. Read also Aurélien Denizeau, “Mavi Vatan, la « Patrie bleue » : Origines, influence et limites d’une doctrine ambitieuse pour la Turquie”, Études de l’Ifri, April 2021.
[33] Sergueï Melnokian, “Gromkoye molchaniye: Izrail’ i voyna v Nagornom Karabakhe”, Analysis, Russian International Affairs Council, 12 February 2021.
[34] “Azerbaijan seeks to expand bilateral trade with Israel”, Jewish News Syndicate, 22 April 2021.
[35] The accuracy of this calculation is of course difficult to assess. See Galia Lindenstrauss, art.cit., pp. 72-73.
[36] For his first foreign visit as foreign minister in Naftali Bennet’s new Israeli cabinet, Yair Lapid went to the United Arab Emirates at the end of June 2021. This was the first ever visit of an Israeli minister to the Gulf monarchy.
[37] On 31 May 2010, off the coast of Gaza, Israeli special forces boarded and inspected the Mavi Marmara, a ship with Turkish activists aboard who had come to support the Gazans. The operation caused 10 deaths among the activists and sparked a crisis between Ankara and Tel-Aviv.
[38] “Azerbaijan ready to host trilateral summit with Turkey, Israel”, Daily Sabbah, 26 April 2021.

 

Igor Delanoë, Assistant director of the Observatoire franco-russe, Doctor of History and member of OS2MO

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