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Azerbaijan: Israel’s quiet friend

Azerbaijan gets arms, Israel gets Azeri oil, and anti-Tehran allies on Iran’s border. But pressure on Baku from Turkey over Gaza might soon disrupt the relationship
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) before a meeting at the presidential complex in Ankara, 19 February 2024 (Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R), Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) before a meeting at the presidential complex in Ankara, 19 February 2024 (Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)

While many Muslim-majority states have condemned Israel for the conduct of its war in Gaza, Azerbaijan stands out for its relative quiet.

Baku, which will soon attract more global attention as it prepares to host Cop29 in November, has long enjoyed closer ties to Israel than many of its near neighbours. In recent years, the friendship has blossomed further.

Israel is now the top destination for Azeri crude oil, while key weaponry for Baku’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war was supplied by Israel.

But ties are driven by more than just material benefits, with shared geopolitical concerns, especially regarding Iran, further oiling the relationship.

Israel calls Azerbaijan a "strategic partner", enjoying close historical ties. When Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991, Israel was one of the first states to recognise the new state. A small Jewish community in Azerbaijan, of between 7,000 and 16,000 people, ensures a cultural connection, but the political relationship has been the priority.

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Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Azerbaijan, in 1997, and since then trade and security cooperation has increased. By the mid-2000s, Azerbaijan had become Israel’s fifth-largest trading partner, with oil headed to the eastern Mediterranean and weaponry and other military material headed to the Caspian Sea.

Today, Azerbaijan, alongside Kazakhstan, supplies 60 percent of the crude oil Israel uses.  

No criticism of Israel

Israel believes that having a Muslim-majority state as a partner might reduce its diplomatic isolation in the Muslim world. This has been particularly pronounced since the Gaza war began.

While most Muslim-majority states have been vocal in their criticism, the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has been surprisingly quiet. Aliyev met Israeli President Isaac Herzog on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February, and there has been no outpouring of public criticism of Israel since the Gaza war began.

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Baku-based journalist and analyst, Rovshan Mammadli, even reports a “de facto ban on protests against Israel”, by Aliyev’s authoritarian government. 

Baku is not unconcerned with the suffering of the Palestinians. It recognises Palestine and hosts a Palestinian embassy. It has been a vocal supporter of the two-state solution and, since the war broke out, supported UN resolutions calling for ceasefires.

But there has been a conscious balance to Baku’s line: expressing sympathy for the Palestinians without excessively criticising Israel. 

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For Baku, Gaza falls behind more proximate concerns, for which Israel has proven a useful ally.

The first is the conflict with neighbouring Armenia. Having provided Baku with key weaponry to defeat Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, Israel has deepened its military partnership with Azerbaijan since then. Intelligence sharing between the two states has increased, while Israel has provided modern drone technology. Israeli companies have also rushed to invest in rebuilding Nagorno-Karabakh.

Israel’s support in the 2020 war was tied to Azerbaijan’s second proximate concern: its neighbour to the south, Iran.

Tehran backed Armenia in its decades-long conflict with Azerbaijan, despite it being a Christian-majority state fighting a fellow Muslim-majority state. This has contributed to frosty relations between Tehran and Baku and helps partly explain why Aliyev has been happy to forge ties with Iran’s long-standing rival, Israel.

The mutual hostility has even seen Iran backing Islamist groups in Azerbaijan, and Baku to encourage Iranian Azeris to push for separatism, without much success.

Rather like its quiet support for some Kurdish groups in Iraq, Israel sees the value of supporting strong anti-Tehran forces on Iran’s border.

'New chapter'

That said, Armenia’s defeats in 2020 and the collapse of Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023 have changed Tehran’s calculus somewhat. Immediately after the war, it mobilised troops along the Caucasus border as a means to deter Azerbaijan from pushing deeper into Armenia to connect with its non-contiguous province, Nakhchivan.

Since then, Tehran has adopted less aggressive methods: concluding an agreement last year to allow Azerbaijan access to Nakhchivan through Iranian territory, to temper its ambitions of conquering Armenia’s "Zangezur Corridor".   

They have also endorsed the possibility of a new rail link between Russia and India, via Iranian and Azeri territory, while officials have spoken of a "new chapter" in Baku-Tehran relations.

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This might not erase the decades of tensions between the two neighbours, nor prompt Baku to halt its ties to Israel. However, Tehran may hope that if Baku feels less threatened by Iran, it will ease its closeness to Israel over time.

A more immediate source of strain on Israeli-Azeri ties, however, concerns Turkey. Far more than Israel, Turkey is Azerbaijan’s closest ally. Aliyev’s father and predecessor as president even described the relationship with their Turkic brethren as, “one nation, two states”.

In 2020, Ankara provided key weaponry, though less than Israel, but also helped train Azerbaijan’s military and provided Syrian militiamen to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. In contrast to Aliyev, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been vocally critical of Israel since the start of the Gaza conflict. Israel and Turkey have recalled their diplomats, while Erdogan has severed some trade deals

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute hypothesises that Erdogan’s anger at Israel might ultimately "doom" Azerbaijani-Israeli ties, with the Turkish president demanding its ally respond more forcefully over Gaza.

However, while this is a possibility given Ankara’s importance to Baku, Israeli-Azeri ties are now deep and historical and Azerbaijan would be reluctant to give them up, even in the face of Turkish pressure.

Baku will probably hope that a ceasefire is announced before any such pressure from Ankara emerges, allowing it to continue its close, quiet relationship with Israel under less scrutiny. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Christopher Phillips is a professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, where he is also a deputy dean. He is the author of The Battle for Syria, available from Yale University Press, and co-editor of What Next for Britain in the Middle East, available from IB Tauris.
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