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Azerbaijan and Israel: Not a Typical Relationship

24 March 2010 [12:40] - TODAY.AZ
Relationships of convenience in the world of international politics are ubiquitous. It is virtually impossible to scan this world and not find an immediate example. Indeed, many of the United States' "closest" international relationships are those of convenience. Are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States really allies and/or close friends? More likely, it is in the U.S.'s and Saudi Arabia's best interests to support the Saudi royal family, shall we say, over less friendly options. Again, the world scene is replete with these examples.

It is interesting and ultimately important and instructive to delve into and take a closer look at alliances and state to state relationships. Are these relationships pragmatic and based simply on common interest? Are they "shot gun weddings," based on tactical and short term needs? Or are some of these relationships based on the above scenarios while also possessing deeper considerations? The answer is not always evident. These cases take more study, as in the relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The close relationship between the Israel and Azerbaijan would seem, at first glance, to be one of simple convenience. Why would the Jewish state, portrayed by radicals to be the enemy of all Muslims, and a majority-Muslim nation decide to work with one another and to embark upon the establishment of such a close bilateral relationship? One may conclude that Azerbaijan was willing to sell much needed oil to Israel, so Israel took the initiative. One may also argue that Azerbaijan, when these contracts originated, was a newly independent former Soviet Republic who needed a market for its oil exports and the revenue they afforded and Israel was simply a buyer. It is interesting to note that Azerbaijan, via its strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline, supplies roughly a quarter of Israel's oil.

Further investigation, though, bears out facts that shed a brighter light on a more substantive and expansive relationship. Azerbaijan, a secular, majority-Muslim nation, is well known for its pragmatic and balanced foreign policy. Azerbaijan is also a nation that, while considering its best interests, can be relied upon to do the "right thing." In the politics of oil, and make no mistake, there is a politics of oil, Azerbaijan chose to sell its oil to Israel. It is a definite considered decision.

A large contributing factor and, some would argue, the genesis of this close bilateral relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan is the ancient Jewish community that resides (indeed, thrives) in Azerbaijan to this day. This community, 35,000 strong, has resided there for 2,500 years without, by their own admission, any persecution. The Jews of Azerbaijan fought alongside their Muslim countrymen both against the Soviets as the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent and in Armenia's war to conquer parts of Azerbaijan. Muslims and Jews have harmoniously lived and worked side by side in Azerbaijan for centuries as equals.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Azerbaijani Jews seized upon the opportunity to leave and emigrated to Israel. As Azerbaijan became independent and stable, these Jews began to travel back to Azerbaijan and develop business and cultural relationships. Many Jews from Azerbaijan now live in both nations.

In terms of sheer economics, the value of trade between the two nations has risen to a whopping $3.6 billion USD per annum. The trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Israel totaled $400 million in 2007, and Israel's exports to Azerbaijan in 2008 broke records for the third consecutive year. According to figures released by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel exported a total of $128,896,130 in 2008, a 56.4 percent increase over the previous year's figure. Azerbaijan was Israel's 41st largest market in 2008, ahead of more established partners like Portugal, Ireland, Serbia, Bulgaria and Norway.

In the other direction, Israel is Azerbaijan's third largest trading partner, accounting for 6.4 percent of Azerbaijan's total trade. According to figures announced by Azerbaijan's Statistical Committee, Israel imported approximately $3.5 billion of goods, including oil from Azerbaijan in 2008.

Investment by Israeli companies and partnerships with Azerbaijani companies is also most notable. Investment by the Israeli-owned Bakcell, a cell phone operator is the second largest in the Azerbaijani market. In 2008, Israel and Azerbaijan closed a weapons deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Most notable is the recent agreement to jointly develop and build advanced unmanned aerial vehicles.

Many Israeli companies also operate in the expansive energy sector of Azerbaijan. For instance, an Israeli-based supplier of high technology to the energy industry, Modcom System Ltd., opened an office in Azerbaijan in 2000 and has operated there since.

Trade in human capital is also significant between the two nations. Regular governmental, business and cultural delegations are exchanged between the two states. One of the first was the 1997 visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with the revered late President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev. Most recently, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were welcomed to Azerbaijan by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev with full state honors. It is interesting to note that Iranian leaders objected strenuously to Peres's visit and was basically told by President Ilham Aliyev to mind their own business and that he would host whomever he wishes in his nation. Ministerial-level delegations to Azerbaijan include Israel's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who traveled to Azerbaijan to discuss partnerships in Azerbaijan's burgeoning agricultural industry. Israel's Minister of National Infrastructure visited Baku to participate at the annual Caspian Oil & Gas Exhibition. The list goes on.

Exchanges, delegations and visits from Azerbaijan to Israel are equally plentiful. The Azerbaijani Minister of Economic Development visited Israel to negotiate and sign an agreement for the reciprocal promotion and protection of investments. Ministerial-level exchanges in the realms of technology, emergency preparedness, security and anti-terrorism, transportation and agriculture transpire on a regular basis. The Azerbaijan-Israel International Association (AzIz) was even established to increase and enhance these high-level contacts.

Critics argue that cracks exist in the bilateral relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel. Perhaps. Surely, no relationship is perfect. Azerbaijan necessarily often abstains from votes that would benefit Israel in the United Nations and other world bodies. No, Azerbaijan does not have an embassy in Israel. Should Azerbaijan? Perhaps. Would the establishment of an embassy in Israel be a nice reciprocation of the opening of an Israeli embassy in Baku, the capitol of Azerbaijan? Yes. Would this limit Azerbaijan's ability to work and deal with other Muslim and majority-Muslim nations? Absolutely. Would it make a good friend and ally pay for, in this specific case, somewhat of symbolic gesture, given the depth of the existing relationship? Yes.

There exists a pragmatic aspect to the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, certainly. Pragmatism is healthy. The relationship, however, is much more than just pragmatism or shared interests. The relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Israel are also based on history, shared citizens and a devotion to freedom, rule of law and building a prosperous and normal society. Relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan are truly, suffice it to say, a prime example of a multifaceted, multilateral, positive and healthy relationship.

Jason Katz is the principal of the Tool Shed Group, a consultancy that advises foreign governments, including the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan. He is also the former head of Public Affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles.

/The Huffington Post/

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