BAKU, Azerbaijan (Apr. 28)
Israel’s ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan has a favorite local joke: “Are you Jewish? No, I just look intelligent.”
The ambassador, Eitan Naeh, says that the joke points to an important aspect of Azeri society: Not only is there no history of anti-Semitism in the country, but many of the best educated people are actively pro-Jewish.
“There is a genuine feeling of respect toward Jews,” he says.
And that, he says, gives him hope that relations between the former Soviet republic and Israel can be strengthened.
At first glance, Azerbaijan is not the most obvious country for Israel to pursue as a partner. Wedged between huge and powerful neighbors including Russia and Iran, the country of nearly 8 million people is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.
It has rarely been in control of its own destiny, and in the early 1990s essentially lost a bitter six-year war against neighboring Armenia for control of a region called Nagorno-Karabakh.
But Naeh says those very factors — dangerous neighbors and a history of being oppressed — make Azerbaijan and Israel logical allies.
“Countries that don’t have too many friends find each other,” he says.
The two also share an important ally, Turkey. The Azeri language and people are very closely related to the Turkish.
And like Turkey, Muslim Azerbaijan is legally a democratic secular republic.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, was instrumental in promoting Israel-Turkish relations in the early 1990s.
In early April, he spent nearly a week in the Azeri capital, Baku, exploring the possibility of doing the same thing here.
He had meetings with an adviser to Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev, as well as deputy ministers of foreign affairs and national security.
Describing the tone of the meetings as “very friendly,” Inbar told JTA that there were many similarities between Israel and Azerbaijan: “Fear of Iran and radical Islam; suspicion of Russia; friendship with Turkey, and a desire to be part of the West.”
Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran are tense. Although the two maintain full diplomatic relations and have recently exchanged parliamentary and business delegations, each views the other with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
The two are engaged in a territorial dispute over the oil-rich Caspian Sea, which borders on both countries, and Azerbaijan has accused Iran of violating both its airspace and territorial waters frequently in the past year.
Perhaps even more significantly, Iran is home to a huge ethnic Azeri community. Roughly a quarter of Iran’s total population is Azeri, Tehran having annexed a large part of historically Azeri lands in 1828 at the end of a war with Russia over Azerbaijan.
Tehran is afraid that a wealthy, powerful Azerbaijan will be a source of attraction to its own ethnic Azeri population, stirring up discontent in Iran, says Brenda Shaffer, a Harvard University specialist in the Caspian region who is currently living in Israel.
Fear of angering Iran has made Azerbaijan reluctant to pursue relations with Israel too openly, a leading Azeri foreign policy specialist says.
“Azerbaijan was willing, but afraid of the Iranian reaction,” says the analyst, Vafa Guluzade.
“But the situation changed after Sept. 11, with American presence in Central Asia, Georgia and Azerbaijan,” he explains. “Our being under the shadow of America means Russia and Iran will not meddle. We are able to be more courageous.”
In fact, when Naeh presented his credentials to Aliyev in October of last year, the Azeri president said Azerbaijan would open an embassy in Israel soon, and that Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev would visit Israel late in 2001 or early in 2002.
Guliyev has not yet scheduled a visit, but reiterated at the Israeli Independence Day party in Baku earlier this month that he would go soon.
Dating from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Section 907 — which prevented Washington from rendering direct government-to-government aid to Azerbaijan — was largely the result of successful Armenian lobbying in Washington. President Bush waived it in January, partly due to Azerbaijan’s support for the so-called war on terrorism.
Inbar says Azerbaijan wants to thank the world Jewish community, and also to take advantage of Israel’s close ties with the United States.
“They understand that Israel has clout in Washington and appreciate what we have done on 907,” he says.
Indeed, an expert who asked not to be named said that Turkey’s status has increased in Washington as a result of Ankara’s alliance with Israel, and that Azerbaijan’s status could do so as well.
But the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan does not go only one way, because the former Soviet republic has a crucial commodity that Israel needs: oil.
The Jewish state is the second largest buyer of oil from Azerbaijan, according to official Azeri figures.
Israel backs a plan to build a pipeline from Baku through Georgia to the port of Ceyhan on the south coast of Turkey. Washington, too, backs the pipeline as a way of getting Caspian Sea oil to the West exclusively though countries that are pro-Western — Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey — rather than through Iran or Russia.
Israel “supports an Azerbaijan that exports its oil West,” the expert said. And, the source added, the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan “is a few hours from Haifa and its refineries.”
Experts say there are commercial benefits to be had from increased ties as well as geopolitical and strategic ones.
“Israel is the biggest economy within three hours’ flight of Baku,” Ambassador Naeh points out.
He adds that Israel was considered a developing economy until recently, as Azerbaijan is now.
“We have a model of development to offer,” he says.
He says that Israel, whose economy is based on light industry, high technology and agriculture, can help Azerbaijan develop the non-oil sector of its economy, which experts say is lagging far behind its petrochemicals sector.
Naeh adds that aliyah from Azerbaijan — an estimated 40,000 Azeri Jews have moved to Israel in the past dozen years, leaving an estimated 20,000 Jews in the country — could provide the basis for strong commercial ties.
He tells the story of an Azeri factory owner who told him that all his managers had moved to Israel.
“‘I want to establish a strategic relationship with Israel,’ the entrepreneur told me, ‘Because they know my factory better than I do,'” Naeh says.
Naeh is currently in Israel meeting leaders of the Azeri community living in Israel and discussing business opportunities.
Foreign policy expert Guluzade says that Israeli investment in Azerbaijan would be good for public relations as well as for business, given the country’s estimated 50 percent unemployment rate.
“If Israel will construct a factory that will give jobs to thousands, or even to hundreds, it will be good anti-Iranian propaganda,” Guluzade says.
“I advise Israelis to come, investigate, get to know people — that’s an important part of doing business here. Be careful who you choose as your partners,” Naeh says. “Be patient. Don’t risk too much.”
But, he adds, potential investors should not wait, either.
“Azerbaijan is not rich by any means today, but its potential will increase. In 10 years, it might be too late,” he says.