Israeli-manufactured Harop drone of the type used by Azerbaijani armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Paris, 2013. Photo CC BY 4.0: Julian Herzog / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
After 44 days of war, a Russian-brokered deal has bought an uneasy peace to Nagorno-Karabakh. On September 27, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to retake this mountainous territory, which it had lost to ethnic Armenian forces in the 1988-1994 war. Baku has succeeded, but the war has cost several thousand lives.
That peace deal, announced on November 10, has redrawn the map of the South Caucasus. Over the next two months, Azerbaijan will receive control of all the districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, which also fell under Karabakh Armenian control during the first war. The status of that section of Nagorno-Karabakh which Azerbaijan did not conquer, including the heavily bombarded capital of Stepanakert, remains unclear. Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will patrol the region, as well as a strategically important road linking it to Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s victory came in no small part due to external support. NATO member state Turkey, which Azerbaijan has close cultural and economic ties, has weighed in heavily on Baku’s side — offering political support, military expertise, and mercenaries from Syria.
Baku’s friendship with Israel has also been crucial to its battlefield successes. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel supplied 60 percent of all Azerbaijan’s arms imports between 2015 and 2019. Among them are the SandCat armoured car and several rifle models.
Importantly, these imports helped Azerbaijan amass a fleet of military drones, which overwhelmed Armenia’s air defence systems and turned the tide in Baku’s favour. As a senior source in the Israeli military told the Asia Times on October 14, “Azerbaijan would not have been able to continue its operation at this level without our support”.
Not everybody in Israel sees those words as a cause for pride.
Azerbaijan’s use of sophisticated armaments like these has killed civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority of the ethnic Armenian population is now believed to have fled the territory. In recent weeks, Israeli-made Harop drones have been seen in the skies above Stepanakert, as the city’s residents cower in basements far below. These so-called “kamikaze drones” were also used by the Azerbaijani military in clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016.
Israeli-made cluster bombs have also appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh. In statements October 5 and 23, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that on multiple occasions, the Azerbaijani military had fired Israeli-produced M095 DPICM and LAR-160 cluster munitions at residential areas of the city (there is also evidence to suggest that in one instance on October 30, Armenia fired a Smerch cluster munitions rocket at the Azerbaijani city of Barda). Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan (nor Israel) are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of such indiscriminate weaponry.
The Israeli government may not have commented on the conflict, but Armenians feel that these arms deals say all that needs to be said.
Armenian foreign ministry spokewoman @naghdalyan: “For us, Israel’s supply of ultra-modern weapons to Azerbaijan is unacceptable, especially now, in the conditions of Azerbaijan’s aggression with the support of Turkey”
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) October 1, 2020
Since the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh began, journalists and flight trackers in Israel have noted a surge in the number of cargo flights from SilkWay Airlines, a carrier linked to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence, landing at the Ovda military airbase in southern Israel:
Third Azeri heavylifter from Ankara this week. Was in Israel yesterday
— avi scharf (@avischarf) October 1, 2020
Armenia has reacted forcefully. In early October, just two weeks after opening an embassy in Tel Aviv, Armenia recalled its ambassador for consultations. When subsequently asked by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin whether Armenia would welcome humanitarian aid, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan exclaimed: “Humanitarian aid from a country selling weapons to mercenaries, which they are using to strike a peaceful civilian population? I propose that Israel send that aid to the mercenaries and terrorists as the logical continuation of its activities”.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on November 3, Pashinyan stressed that Israel’s support for Azerbaijan has put it on the same side as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — somewhat awkwardly, given the strained relations between the two countries. Tel Aviv had, he concluded, aided and abetted genocide against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and that sooner or later, Turkey would turn its “imperialistic ambitions” towards Israel.
For nearly thirty years, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has eluded outsiders’ attempts to fit it neat templates. On the face of things, Israel and Azerbaijan may not be the most obvious partners. But that is exactly what makes their friendship so symbolically important.
Until Israel’s recent detente with the Gulf States, Azerbaijan was one of the few Muslim-majority states in the Near East with which Tel Aviv could say it had genuinely warm relations. Baku might be expected to have some sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians given parallels with the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s — Azerbaijanis who will finally get to return to their homes.
Yet this friendship requires otherwise. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in 2016, Israel and Azerbaijan are “an example of what relations can and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere”. For this reason, paeans to Azerbaijan and President Ilham Aliyev periodically surface in the Israeli press and Jewish community newspapers worldwide, though are more circumspect about Azerbaijans’s abysmal human rights record.
These often highlight Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, which numbers in the tens of thousands enjoys good relations with the rest of Azerbaijani society. In recent weeks, the Azerbaijani authorities have taken pains to juxtapose their country’s multiculturalism, in particular its Jewish community, with comparatively monocultural Armenia. A case in point is this video of Daniel, a young Azerbaijani of Mountain Jewish heritage, who explains why he was ready to fight for Azerbaijan:
#Azerbaijan is home to many ethnicities & religions, inc. 30,000 #Jews who have peacefully lived in Azerbaijan for 2000 years. Here is the story of #Daniel, a Mountain Jew, who volunteered to fight for his homeland, defending its territorial integrity against invasion by #Armenia pic.twitter.com/yZUCIwV3Dn
— Nasimi Aghayev 🇦🇿 (@NasimiAghayev) October 17, 2020
Furthermore, approximately 70,000 Azerbaijani Jews live in Israel, where they have campaigned in support of Baku during the recent war.
This friendship is also deeply practical, for Azerbaijan shares a long border with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.
That provides Tel Aviv with plenty of strategic opportunities, says Jeff Halper, an American academic based in Israel and the author of War Against The People, a 2015 book about Israel’s security state. For decades, Israel has pursued a “strategy of the periphery” to encircle the Arab world with political and military allies, which since the 1990s has included post-Soviet states such as Azerbaijan, noted Halper in an email exchange with GlobalVoices.
“Israel provides Azerbaijan with advice and weaponry in counterterrorism, including against its internal opposition, while Azerbaijan provides Israel with a battlefield laboratory for cutting-edge military technologies”, Halper explains. Azerbaijan’s energy supplies are also a draw; Baku started exporting oil to Israel in 1999, and now supplies 37 percent of all Israel’s imports.
According to Zaur Shiriyev, Caucasus researcher at International Crisis Group, the turning point in Israeli-Azerbaijani relations came in 2010, and had little to do with Iran. Around this time, Shiriyev told GlobalVoices, Baku recognised the urgency of modernising its military, while deteriorating relations with Turkey compelled Israel to search for new partners. “Israel also complemented Turkey in another role: lobbying in Washington for Azerbaijani interests”, Shiriyev added.
Armenia could not compete with that offer.
However, the people of Armenia and Israel share something no less tangible — the trauma of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities. Both are the nation states of genocide survivors. They are also both states which, in more recent decades, triumphed over their neighbours in vicious conflicts — sharpened by the fear that history might repeat itself.
For Armenians, this makes Israel’s refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915 particularly unforgivable, driving relations into a dead end. This may well inform negative attitudes towards Jews in Armenia, as recorded by the Pew Research Centre in 2019 public opinion polling. Some in the country’s small Jewish community have felt very torn about Israel’s support for Azerbaijan; as one Armenian Jewish respondent asked in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “Armenia is David. Why is Israel arming Goliath?”
A matter of ethics
Israeli officials have floated the idea of recognising the Armenian Genocide on several occasions. However, these have largely coincided in shifts in relations with Turkey, where the mass murders are referred to as “deportations”. Some Israelis believe that their country has an ethical imperative for recognition, and that the refusal to do so suggests a prioritisation of geopolitics over justice.
Several of the loudest voices in Israeli society calling against the sale of arms to Azerbaijan are two prominent genocide scholars — Israel Charny and Yair Auron — who have called for Israel to recognise the Armenian Genocide. In 2014 Auron, author of two books on Israel and the Armenian Genocide, suggested in an op-ed for Ha’aretz that arms sales to Azerbaijan could make Israel complicit in ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus. In 2016, Charny took the argument even further, asking in the Times of Israel whether Israel would sell arms to Adolf Hitler.
Activists against Israel’s arms trade also launched legal challenges as the war in Nagorno-Karabakh raged. However, on October 12 Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the activist Elie Joseph to ban arms sales to Azerbaijan, refusing to hold a hearing on the grounds there was insufficient evidence that such weapons would be used in war crimes against Armenians. The Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack attempted to supplement the legal case with a moral one, arguing in +972 magazine that arms exports emboldened the Azerbaijani authorities to follow through on its bellicose threats towards Armenia.
This legal challenge is one of several launched by Elie Joseph, a British-born Israeli human rights activist, who held a hunger strike this year against Israel’s arms exports to human rights abusers.
“People abroad know more about these arms sales than people in Israel. As Jews and human beings, we have to stop being involved in this type of thing, to stop the silence. There is a very strong connection between this trade and the non-recognition of the Armenian genocide. Yesterday it was us, tomorrow it could be us again, and today it’s somebody else.”
In a telephone call with GlobalVoices, Joseph stated that he planned to launch a third appeal against Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan and was willing to hold another hunger strike. One day, he hopes that a law will be passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, banning arms sales to human rights abusers.
“We have set our minds to waking up the nation, whether it’s about arms sales to Azerbaijan, Myanmar, South Sudan or Vietnam”, declared Joseph, who emphasised that his was a pro-Israeli and patriotic position.
Yet Halper remains doubtful that such exports will stop, at least in the foreseeable future. The trade is too lucrative, and Azerbaijan too strategically important for Israel. Moreover, he told GlobalVoices, activists such as Mack and Joseph may face an uphill battle when it comes to raising public support:
“Nothing about Israeli arms or deployment is an issue in Israel, not in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories], not when employed among Palestinians in Israel and not in international use. It’s a non-issue. Or, Israelis feel a great pride in their military and security prowess”.
In any case Azerbaijan’s victory, supported with Israeli arms, is also a significant victory for Ankara, which has deepened its role in the South Caucasus. For Armenians, that is calamitous. For Israelis, it is a conundrum, particularly if Erdoğan’s belligerent political style outlives the Turkish prime minister’s time in office.
To some degree, Aliyev will be indebted to Turkey. What does that mean for Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan?
Shiriyev concludes that Baku has many years’ of experience balancing ties with Ankara and Tel Aviv, even when tensions were at their highest. “In the South Caucasus, I would say that Turkey’s power is growing and plays a balancing role for Azerbaijan against other powers, especially Russia. I don’t think Israel has such a role”.