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Azerbaijan's Balancing Act In Israel-Turkey Rift

  • Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey, must carefully navigate its relations with Israel amidst regional tensions.
  • Azerbaijan's strategic partnership with Israel is multifaceted, involving oil purchases, arms sales, and intelligence cooperation.
  • Baku refrains from publicly condemning Israel or calling for a ceasefire, focusing on enhancing relations without entanglement.
Baku

The deadly Israeli offensive that followed Hamas' surprise attack from Gaza on October 7 has shaken the Muslim world. 

No Muslim-majority country, including relatively secular Azerbaijan, can simply ignore it. 

In fact, Baku is particularly sensitive to the course of developments. Three of its neighbors, Russia, Iran, and - most importantly - its key ally Turkey are vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's relations with Israel are at their zenith. 

On the international stage, Baku walks a fine line in an effort to maintain these ties while avoiding alienating Turkey and damaging its standing in the Islamic world, which has been steeped in anti-Israeli sentiments since the conflict's outset. 

Much like Turkey, on the first day of escalation, Azerbaijan embraced a position of moral equivalence in its official statement by condemning violence against all civilians in the conflict zone while expressing condolences for both Palestinian and Israeli losses. This stance remained consistent during the UN General Assembly proceeding on October 27, where both countries cast their votes in support of a resolution that called for an immediate truce in the Israeli war on Gaza.

And, in an act of goodwill toward Israel, Baku condemned Hamas through its ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Azerbaijani-Israeli interparliamentary working group while not voting against a Canadian-drafted amendment to the UNGA resolution that would have explicitly condemned Hamas. 

A recent, highly symbolic step in this diplomatic dance was the summit of the Organization of Turkic States in Kazakhstan, where leaders, including Ilham Aliyev, did not mention Israeli aggression explicitly and just expressed "concern over the ongoing conflict."

It is no longer a secret that Baku has built intricate strategic ties with Israel over the years, with President Aliyev likening them in 2009 to an iceberg "nine-tenths submerged," according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables. This partnership is underpinned by Israel's significant oil purchases from Baku and its reciprocal substantial arms sales, which played a pivotal role in Azerbaijan's routing of Armenian forces in 2020 and the Karabakh army in 2023.  Related: Swedish Union Blocks Tesla Imports As Labor Dispute Escalates

In return, Baku reportedly provides Israel with a staging ground for conducting reconnaissance and intelligence activities against its archenemy, Iran. 

Especially amid the strained Baku-Tehran relationship following the Second Karabakh War in 2020, the Azerbaijan-Israel alliance has grown much more open - and more robust. Yet, this cooperation extends beyond trade and security considerations. 

Israel helps the Azerbaijani authorities secure a degree of immunity in the U.S. against criticism of human rights abuses and the mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. Notably, human rights activists, mindful of the Israeli-produced Pegasus spyware that enabled Azerbaijan's government to surveil local activists and journalists, have expressed concerns about Israel's security policies, which disregard democratic norms and human rights.

It is therefore not surprising that Baku refrains from condemning Israel or explicitly calling for a ceasefire, even as voices from the Global South demand an end to the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza. After achieving its strategic objectives in Karabakh, Baku is now inclined to quietly enhance its relations with Israel without getting entangled in the games of major powers. Just a few days ago, SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state oil company, secured a gas exploration license for offshore blocks in the East Mediterranean. 

(The development of Israel's gas reserves could have a transformative impact on global energy markets and consequently, Israel's standing in the world, market analyst and journalist Joseph Dana has written.)

Amid all this, Azerbaijan's authorities uphold a reserved stance on this matter when addressing the domestic audience, effectively preventing any public protest against Israel. The government has systematically persecuted the main segment of society aligned with pro-Palestinian sentiments, devout Shias, particularly intensely over the past three years, at present there is no expression of solidarity with Gaza beyond the virtual space. 

This approach entails certain risks for the Aliyev government, however. Over the past 30 years, Azerbaijan has invoked pan-Islamic solidarity to garner support from OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) members for its position in the conflict with Armenia. Although it may feel less reliant on such support after retaking Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku’s failure to openly denounce the Israeli assault on Gaza exposes a contradiction in its own narrative on occupation and professed pan-Islamic solidarity. 

The situation also poses a risk to Azerbaijan's efforts to reconcile its "brother" Turkey with its "strategic partner" Israel since the two countries expelled each other's ambassadors in 2018 in a dispute over Israel's killing of Palestinians amid protests on the Gaza-Israel border.

Israel's Foreign Minister has already called for a reassessment of ties with Turkey. On October 25, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan crossed a rhetorical Rubicon, calling Israel a terrorist state and expressing sympathy for Hamas, a departure from his more balanced statements during the initial weeks of the hostilities. 

Anti-Turkish sentiment is growing across the Israeli political spectrum, and, depending on how regional dynamics evolve, Ankara might adopt a more assertive anti-Israel stance if the conflict persists. In such a scenario, Erdogan is likely to anticipate strong backing from Azerbaijan in exchange for Turkey's key support to Azerbaijan in regaining Karabakh. It's worth remembering that during the 2020 dispute between Turkey and Greece over gas fields in the East Mediterranean, Aliyev pledged unwavering support for Ankara "under any circumstances without any hesitation," while Israel became much closer to Athens.

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Potential divergence with Turkey can also create a domestic headache for the government by damaging the longstanding narrative of "one nation, two states." To prevent the emergence of such impressions in the public, state-linked media adopt a slightly pro-Palestinian position by running headlines like "Azerbaijan demonstrates commitment to Islamic solidarity regarding the Palestinian issue" and "Does Baku only support Tel Aviv in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Yet not being vocal about Palestine could politicize Azerbaijan's Muslim believers, which can fuel other social grievances and ultimately pose a challenge to the country's authoritarian system.

Nonetheless, the potential costs or benefits of alignment with Israel largely depend on the course of the war and its broader implications, making it difficult to predict at this stage. 

By Rovshan Mammadli via Eurasianet.org 

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