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a friendship made public: herzog’s prominent visit to azerbaijan

A Friendship Made Public: Herzog’s Prominent Visit to Azerbaijan

Author: Josephine Freund

Jun 2, 2023

Image source: president.az

When Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, arrived in Baku on May 30, the top item on the agenda was defense. Both Israel and Azerbaijan have been nurturing closer diplomatic ties, especially in the past year, and Herzog’s visit came quite naturally in the scheme of recent bilateral developments. However, this visit, while coming amid a series of other friendly displays between the two nations in the past year, was markedly significant, as it demonstrated an extremely public endeavor between the two countries and that they truly value growing this bilateral partnership.

The visit to Azerbaijan, which Herzog deemed, “a dream come true for me, and for the citizens of my country,” was marked by a warm welcome from the country. Azerbaijani officials even made sure that the Old City of Baku was closed off, so that the Israeli President, along with his delegation, which included Israel’s Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, could securely take a tour of the city. Greater security measures were taken in general during Herzog’s visit so as not to allow for any possible dangers from nearby Iran. Not only this, but Herzog was also met with many other personalized displays upon his arrival, pointing out Azerbaijan’s commitment to its Jewish community, as well as the importance it placed on Herzog’s visit. For example, Herzog’s arrival in Baku was greeted by Azerbaijani Jewish children singing to the Israeli delegation the popular Hebrew song, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” or “We Brought Peace Upon You.”

Herzog’s visit allowed Israeli and Azerbaijani officials to discuss the development of relations through a few key sectors, including in healthcare and cyber security. Furthermore, Azerbaijan expressed interest in Israel’s desalinization technology as well as agricultural innovation. The two countries also expressed willingness to deepen cooperation in the energy sector, such as investing in Israel’s natural gas industry. As of now, 40% of Israel’s petroleum comes from Azerbaijan.

However, the bottom line, reiterated throughout Herzog’s visit, was that the two nations share a very similar vested interest in not only overall security cooperation, but also specifically regarding the shared uneasiness over an increasingly belligerent Iran. Before boarding the flight to Baku, Herzog told reporters that Israel recognizes Azerbaijan as “a neighbor of Iran, a destabilizing force in the region trying to undermine Israeli alliances of peace and security in the region.” He went on to state the fundamental goal of the visit: “Azerbaijan recently opened an embassy in Israel—we will do all we can to develop ties with them.”

 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Herzog promptly met after Herzog’s arrival. Following that meeting, Herzog mentioned in a joint press conference that the two leaders spoke in depth about “the entire global and regional security structure that is endangered and threatened by Iran.”

Herzog went on to describe the existential importance of the growing relations between Israel and Azerbaijan: “Our shared strategy and vision is based on doing good, through honest and open dialogue between Jews and Muslims, a vision that can be dreamed about and also shown…. It's no secret that your country is Muslim with a majority of Shiite followers, and yet the love and affection between our countries is an example of how we can change the world and move forward.”

Aliyev in turn emphasized the increased close partnership Azerbaijan and Israel have recently been developing, especially in the defense realm. He said that Azerbaijan “has access to modern Israeli equipment in this area for many years, which helps us to modernize our defense capability, and to be able to protect our statehood, our values, our national interest, and our territorial integrity.” Further, Aliyev emphasized that the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Tel Aviv this year will pave the way to grow the bilateral relationship and for its endeavors to reach new heights.

What has recently become clearer is the extent to which Azerbaijan and Israel have cooperated with each other in the realm of defense. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that 69% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports in 2016-2020 came from Israel; this accounted for 17% of Israel’s arms exports. President Aliyev, recently more publicly expressing the depth of this facet of the bilateral relationship, spoke with gratitude toward Israel’s help in this sector: “Azerbaijan has had access to Israeli equipment for many years that allows us to modernize our defense capability and allows us to defend our statehood, our national interests, and our territorial integrity.”

While the cooperation between the two countries has certainly increased in the past few months, what’s significant is that Azerbaijan and Israel have actively increased the visibility of their relations. For years before, while the two countries did have an important bilateral relationship in which Israel received oil from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan received security intelligence as well as arms from Israel, Azerbaijan still kept relatively mum about the importance of this relationship.

That undoubtedly was due to Azerbaijan’s tenuous dance between maintaining civil relations with neighbor Iran, even while fostering productive ties with Iran’s persona non grata, Israel. As relations between Israel and Iran remain tense, and with Azerbaijan’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Iran following a series of diplomatic disasters and military encroachments, there is no longer a good enough reason for Azerbaijan to not press forward for stronger, more open relations with Israel.

As Azerbaijan continues welcoming bilateral cooperation with Israel as unabashedly as it recently has, their strategic cooperation is assured for the future. For Israel, having friendly and productive relations with Azerbaijan is extremely important. Not only does Israel benefit from Azerbaijan’s resources, but having a Muslim-majority country proudly and publicly display that having friendly relations with the Jewish nation is possible, especially in the face of an increasingly aggressive Iran, this alone is immensely important for Israel’s increased efforts to forge relationships with other Muslim countries in the wider region.

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