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Why you won't hear criticism of Israel in Azerbaijan

Baku siding with Tel Aviv opens up vulnerabilities in its relations with Turkey and invites attacks of hypocrisy.

Analysis | Middle East

The escalating violence between Israel and Palestinians places all Muslim countries that have established relations with Israel in a diplomatic conundrum. On the one hand, these relations bring them tangible benefits both on their own merits and in terms of influence in Washington. On the other, the longer and the more brutal the cycle of violence, the higher the diplomatic and political costs of alignment with Israel.  

One of the countries to find themselves in this quandary is Azerbaijan. A non-Arab nation, it enjoyed warm ties with Israel long before the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco’s “normalization deals.” Israel’s support was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s victory in its 44-day war against Armenia in 2020. In exchange, Israel gets a valuable foothold in the Caspian republic for intelligence activities against its archenemy Iran.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the official Baku would not offer even a token criticism of Israeli actions, including assault on Islam’s third holiest mosque — Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem —  and indiscriminate pounding of Gaza. Officials would also not comment on rockets launched by Hamas on Israeli cities. The regime-affiliated media, however, fully embraced the narratives of Likud and its far-right allies. A website with alleged ties to the security services, often seen as a voice of Azerbaijan’s “deep state”, run headlines like “Biden and Hamas set Israel on fire”, or “Middle East’s bloody dead-end,” the advent of which is explained away exclusively with Palestinians’ supposedly incurable addiction to terror and the Biden administration’s fecklessness.

Adoption of such narratives reflects more than just gratitude to Israel for its support during the war with Armenia or the need to win over Washington. There is a considerable ideological convergence between the Azerbaijani regime and the Israeli right-wing in their shared unabashed ethno-nationalism, militarism, neglect of human rights and international humanitarian law, relish in offending the “liberal” international public opinion and dehumanization of the perceived adversary — Palestinians in the case of Israel, Armenians in Azerbaijan.

Such an alignment, however, has considerable downsides for Azerbaijan. For one, it exposes the fundamental cleavages with Baku’s closest ally and partner — Turkey. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for his harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric in the past, true to form, called Israel a “terror state.” His foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin vowed to fight against that “malignant power” until “Palestine is liberated”.

Commitment to the Palestinian cause is one of the features defining the political identity of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP). It is also a major source of Turkish soft power in the Muslim world. As such it’s not going to fade away. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, by contrast, has distinctly little appreciation for political Islam and its standard-bearing issues like Palestine. Years ago, Wikileaks cables revealed Aliyev’s derisory remarks about Erdogan’s foreign policy, casting it as “naïve” and detrimental to Turkey’s ties to “traditional allies,” including Israel. It only took a crisis in Palestine for this deep-held divergence to re-emerge. Erdogan, who invested heavily in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia, would no doubt be disappointed with his “Turkic brother”’s failure to support him equally forcefully on an issue of key political importance for him. 

Israel’s disproportionate punishment of Palestinians also rules out, for a near future, a project long cherished by Baku — to mediate a reconciliation between its two allies, Turkey and Israel. Instead, it pushes Turkey closer to Iran, and cools down any irredentist appetites Baku might entertain regarding what it calls “southern Azerbaijan” — northern Iranian provinces with a significant Azeri Turkish population. 

Failure to condemn the Israeli assault, particularly on Al-Aqsa, exposes Baku to charges of hypocrisy in broader Muslim world: part of its own narrative of the conflict with Armenia rests on the claims of the desecration of mosques during the quarter century of the Armenian occupation of Azeri lands. Alignment with Tel-Aviv would also alienate growing numbers of Muslim believers, both Sunni and Shiite, in Azerbaijan itself. Like their co-religionaries in other countries, they are scathingly critical of Israel’s actions. As Altay Goyushov from the Baku Research Institute notes, so far they refrained from directing their ire at the Aliyev administration, but a prolonged conflict, particularly if it leads to further deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, would create a domestic headache for Aliyev.

By comparison with alienating Turkey, Muslim masses worldwide and in Azerbaijan proper, the benefits of an unconditional alignment with Tel-Aviv look rather modest for Baku. First of all, Israel is anyway not going to stop lobbying for the Aliyev’s regime in Washington as long as it continues to serve as Israel’s conduit for intelligence activities targeting Iran. However, even if this link is damaged, this would prove to be only a modest setback for Azerbaijan. The pro-Israel lobby is not omnipotent. The Biden administration, for example, is determined to rejoin the nuclear agreement with Iran despite Israel’s strident opposition. In a longer run, the politics of Israel-Palestine conflict is slowly changing in the U.S., with the ascendant left in the Democratic party increasingly willing to challenge the traditional unquestioned allegiance to Israel. In these circumstances, betting exclusively on pro-Israeli constituencies, such as Evangelicals and right-wing Republicans, would ill-serve Azerbaijan’s interests as it would convert it into a strictly partisan issue, like Mohammed Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia.  

Nor would the pro-Israel lobby shield Azerbaijan from criticisms of its human rights record. Trump’s approach to Azerbaijan, like other friendly autocracies, was purely transactional. The Biden administration, by contrast, proclaimed defense of human rights as one of the guiding principles of its foreign policy. In his phone call with Aliyev, the U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken (Biden, to date, has not called Aliyev) emphasized the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In a rare gesture that delighted the embattled civic activists and infuriated the regime supporters, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan Lee Litzenberger met with one of the leaders of the feminist movement in the country, Narmin Shahmarzadeh, and stated the need to ensure freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan. That was done in reaction to a violent dispersal of a feminist demonstration in Baku on March 8.

Azerbaijan is not going to sever its relations with Israel over Palestine. However, the ongoing round of violence confirms that Palestine remains a core issue in the Middle East. No Muslim majority country can sidestep it indefinitely. Whatever the short-term gains, a tight embrace of Israel’s right-wing government can backfire on Azerbaijan’s diplomatic standing, and, down the road, even its internal cohesion.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l) and Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev (r) arrive for a working dinner, during NATO SUMMIT 2018 (Shutterstock/Gints Ivuskans)
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