What Azerbaijan wants from Israel?

The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku was enthusiastically received by Azerbaijani ruling class and by general public. Ilham Aliyev says Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have been developing rapidly and are of strategic nature. Netanyahu says that the relations between the Jewish state and Muslim Azerbaijan could become an example for many countries. Bilateral meetings resulted in agreements on double taxation prevention, cooperation in agriculture and creation of a partnership commission. Israel is one of the largest buyers of Azerbaijani oil while Baku has huge contracts with Tel Aviv to purchase offensive weapons.

Israeli experts have repeatedly noted that one of the crucial foundations of relations is the Iranian threat. Israel considers Iran its main geopolitical adversary while Azerbaijan is cautious about growing influence of Iran’s factor. In Azerbaijan they are also angry that Tehran has close ties with Christian Armenia – an enemy  for Baku. Regional powers and political fears led to the Israel- Azerbaijan alliance formation, which is opposed to the union of Iran and Armenia. Russia and Turkey maintain neutrality. Moscow sees Yerevan as an important ally in Eurasian integration projects, but it also sells weapons to Azerbaijan, trying to involve Baku in its sphere of influence. Ankara, following the slogan “one nation – two states”, supports Baku. Meantime, Turkey has balanced relations with Iran and complex connections with Israel because of the Palestine question.

{mosads}It may seem that the main beneficiary within the Israeli-Azerbaijani relations is the Jewish state.  However, in addition to oil sale and weapon purchase, Baku has another crucial reason for collaboration with Israeli side. Azerbaijani leadership is interested in establishing contacts with Israeli lobby in America to counter Armenian organizations in the USA. During Karabakh-Azerbaijani war, Armenian lobby defended the interests of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).  The involvement of Armenian lobby in the political decision-making process led to a number of pro-Armenian Congress laws.

In 1992, it adopted  “Freedom support Act” which provided consolidated approach of America while giving financial and humanitarian assistance to the countries formed after the collapse of the USSR. Armenian lobby proposed the 907th Amendment, which prohibited the United States to provide aid to Azerbaijan due to the aggressive actions against Armenians in NKR and illegal blockade of the border with Armenia.

Though America did not recognize the independence of the NKR, Congress allocated annual grant financial assistance to Stepanakert. Washington sent signals to Yerevan demonstrating its readiness to deepen bilateral dialogue. However, Armenia, being blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan, was concentrated on the alliance with Russia. In turn, the US government sought closer relations with Azerbaijan because of its energy and geopolitical attractiveness.

The only obstacle to Azerbaijan was the Armenian lobby, which continued to be a serious factor. The former President of Azerbaijan – Heydar Aliyev –  secured the support of oil lobby to help Azerbaijan combat the influence of  pro-Armenian groups. However, the repeated attempts to repeal the Amendment 907 under the presidency of Bill Clinton failed. After the establishment of economic relations with Israel, Baku gained access to the possibilities of the pro-Israeli groups in Congress. By 2001, interests of Baku had been promoted by oil lobby and Israeli lobby as well as by Turkey, which convinced President Bush that Azerbaijan could become a useful ally for America and NATO. Azerbaijan was also considered as a  bridgehead to control Iran and regarded as a potential energy supplier of the US allies in Europe bypassing Russia. Changing geopolitical realities and active lobbying campaign conducted by the pro-Israeli organizations led to the situation when George W. Bush suspended specific points of the 907th Amendment. Since then, the Armenian lobby has been fighting a losing battle with the oil and the Israeli lobby to restore the effect of the Section 907.

Though some of the provisions of the Amendment are suspended, the Armenian lobby often refers to it in the discussions on various issues related to military cooperation of the USA and Azerbaijan. After a serious deterioration of the situation on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan border in 2012, the member of the Armenian lobby, Rep. Howard Berman, sent a letter to the Department of State demanding to stop American military assistance to Azerbaijan. Also the White House excluded Azerbaijan from the list of countries that could buy the US military equipment. This example shows that Section 907 continues to limit opportunities of Baku to establish closer ties with Washington. President Aliyev will use all the available resources to achieve the complete abolition of Section 907. However, it will be very difficult to do, as the preservation of this Amendment coincides with the US interests in the Caucasus region. Firstly, in case America completely abolishes the Section, it will lose an effective leverage on Azerbaijan. Secondly, Washington understands that removing the restrictions for Baku may lead to a war resumption, which is quite opposite to the long-term interests of America as one of the permanent co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Another important objective of Azerbaijan is to block the US financial assistance to Stepanakert with the help of the representatives of Israeli lobby.  Despite the status of an unrecognized republic, NKR receives an annual grant aid from the USA. Baku has repeatedly stated that the USA should stop all the contacts with Karabakh and  cancel the humanitarian and financial aid. The most influential members of the working group on Azerbaijani issues in Congress – Adam Kinzinger, Bill Shuster, Ed Whitfield and Tim Ryan – also appear in the Israeli Caucus. Not only they support the abolition of American aid to the NKR, but also to Armenia.

In turn, the pro-Armenian lobbyists block any initiatives aimed at the suspension of American aid to Karabakh. Now the Armenian side is in a pretty vulnerable position. A significant part of the members of the Armenian Caucus belong to Democratic party, which has minority in both chambers of Congress. At the same time, Azerbaijan and Israeli lobbyists are focused on Republicans. Thus, in the coming four years the pro-Azerbaijani pressure will grow seeking to cancel the US external allocations for the NKR.

Breaking the process of local NKR recognition will be the next challenge for the pro-Azerbaijani groups. From 2012 to 2016, six states adopted resolutions on recognition of the NKR: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana, California and Hawaii. Interestingly, the process of a broad discussion of the Karabakh issue began in the states of compact settlement of ethnic Armenians. The next reason for it is that since 2012, there has been cooling of relations of Washington and Baku because before and after the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, the authorities of that country began the persecution of opposition and human rights activists.

Thus, local recognition of the NKR is a certain sign for Azerbaijan to revise its attitude to human rights problems and to the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict. It is difficult to say whether such a continuity will be preserved under the new American President, as unlike Obama, Trump is less interested in human rights issues. However, it is clear that the Israeli lobby is not able to prevent the Armenian side from promotion of the initiatives on the NKR recognition at the regional level.

In general, the leaders of the pro-Israeli organizations believe that helping Baku they serve the interests of Israel. It is important to consider that for a long time the Israeli and Armenian lobby have been in a state of ideological and political opposition, not associated with Azerbaijan. The conflict was caused by the fact that the leading conservative organizations repeatedly prevented the adoption of the resolution on recognition of the Armenian Genocide, stating that the Holocaust was an exceptional phenomenon. Now for Israel, it is extremely important to maintain good relations with the Muslim Azerbaijan and Turkey. 

Areg Galstyan, PhD, is a regular contributor to The National Interest and Forbes. The head of the American Studies Research Centre.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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