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Azerbaijan to upgrade Israel relations?

BAKU, Azerbaijan, Feb. 15 (JTA) — The president of Azerbaijan told a group of American Jewish leaders that his country may upgrade its relations with Israel and open a trade mission there. President Ilham Aliyev made the comments in a meeting with visiting American Jewish leaders this week, although the issue was left unresolved. Azerbaijan, a Muslim state, established diplomatic relations with Israel in the early 1990s but has yet to open an embassy in Israel; Israel has had an embassy in Baku since 1993. Azerbaijan has said its complicated geopolitical situation, particularly its proximity to Iran, as well as its membership in international Islamic organizations, prevent it from opening a mission in Israel. Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations mission to Baku believe the visit of a high-profile Jewish group to Azerbaijan was a success because Aliyev and the Jewish leaders were able to engage in dialogue. “We believe that Azerbaijan is a critical country strategically, geopolitically and even morally,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. The delegation of 50 American Jewish leaders, under the auspices of the Conference of Presidents and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in conjunction with NCSJ — Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia, met Monday in Baku with Aliyev and other top officials at the end of their four-day visit. Azerbaijan is increasingly important for the United States and Israel in the world of geopolitics. The country is sandwiched between several larger regional giants, including Russia, Iran and Turkey, and has traditionally had good relations with Tehran. Azerbaijan gained strategic importance recently with the discovery of new oil and gas riches in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian basin: A just-completed pipeline that bypasses both Iran and Russia would transport Azeri and Central Asian oil and gas from Baku via Turkey to Western European markets, and possibly to Israel. Most recently, Azerbaijan has become a U.S. partner in the war against terror sending its small contingents to Afghanistan and Iraq and providing NATO aircrafts air and landing rights on its territory. Aside from geopolitical considerations, Azerbaijan should be commended for its treatment of its Jews, U.S. Jewish leaders said. Israelis and local Jewish groups estimate the number of Jewish living in Azerbaijan between 15,000 to 40,000. This predominantly Shi’ite Muslim nation of 8 million is widely described as a safe haven for its Jewish community; unlike many other former Soviet republics, Azeri Jews have not seen any major manifestations of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. According to Gennady Zelmanovich, the head of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Azerbaijan, “there have never been any problems whatsoever for Jews in Azerbaijan. Even in Soviet times, we have not had much of the restrictions Jews in other republics had,” referring to the broader religious freedom and other rights local Jews have long enjoyed. While Azerbaijan has been criticized in the West for a lack of democratic freedoms and suppression of political opposition, cooperation with the United States and Israel dominated this week’s agenda. “We don’t shy away from the difficult questions. But at the same time, it’s important to recognize the positive things that are taking place here,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ. “This is a Muslim country whose Jewish community is not threatened, whose government has normal diplomatic relations with Israel.” Said Hoenlein: “We can bring this positive message to other countries, including some of Azerbaijan’s neighbors, and we hope they can learn from this example.” While visiting Jewish leaders and Israeli diplomats based in Baku have been describing Azeri-Israeli relations as normal — and far warmer than Israel have with many other Muslim states — the issue of Azerbaijan opening an embassy in Israel still seems a way off. Azerbaijan insists that the issue of its relations with Israel should be treated delicately. Iran, the country’s southern neighbor, has the largest ethnic Azeri community in the world, exceeding several times Azerbaijan’s own Azeri population. “It is always important to remember who our neighbors are,” Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told the U.S. delegation on Monday in Baku, where the Jewish leaders also met with the Jewish community and with the country’s chief Islamic religious authority. Mammadyarov told the American group that his country was “moving in this direction” toward enhancing its relations with Israel but did not make any promises regarding the opening of his country’s embassy in Israel. On his part, Aliyev was also cautious when assessing this possibility and shied away from making any direct comments on the matter. Aliyev mentioned a possibility for a trade mission in a private exchange with top members of the delegation. When speaking to the entire group in the presence of Azeri TV cameras, he said that the “level of our cooperation” with Israel “is increasing. We want to have more contacts, more communication.” Mammadyarov told U.S. Jewish leaders that his country — a secular Muslim state — has to be aware of the sensitivities of its Muslim neighbors, particularly because these countries have traditionally rendered Azerbaijan their diplomatic support on Nagorno-Karabakh, an area formerly under Azeri jurisdiction with a large ethnic Armenian population. The bloody conflict with Armenia over that region that has lingered since 1988 resulted in Armenia conquering 16 percent of Azerbaijan territory and turned more than 1 million people from both sides into refugees.

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