Will the Bombing of Lebanon Bury the Azeri-Israeli Lovefest?

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August 17, 2006
By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier

As a follow up to my last month's column on Azerbaijan's efforts to exploit Israel's clout in Washington, D.C., I would like to present further revelations on this topic by Ilya Bourtman, a former researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, Israel. His article, titled, "Israel and Azerbaijan's Furtive Embrace," is published in the Summer 2006 edition of the Middle East Quarterly.

Stating that "few could have foreseen how Israel's relationship with Azerbaijan would blossom," Bourtman expresses his amazement that "a country 93 percent Muslim would cooperate closely with Israeli intelligence, and even provide Israeli officials a defensive platform in such a volatile region's Israel and Azerbaijan have quietly become strategic partners sharing intelligence, developing trade relations, and together building regional alliances [with Turkey]." The writer strains credulity by drawing parallels between the Arab-Israeli conflict and that of Azerbaijan with Armenia.

This is how Bourtman explains why Azerbaijan needed the Jewish lobby's help in Washington: "In 1991, Azerbaijan was economically fragile, politically unstable, and militarily weak. Desperate for outside assistance, Baku turned to Israel to provide leverage against a much stronger Iran and a militarily superior Armenia. Israel promised to improve Azerbaijan's weak economy by developing trade ties. It purchased Azerbaijani oil and gas and sent medical, technological, and agricultural experts. Most importantly for Azerbaijan, Israel's foreign ministry vowed to lend its lobby's weight in Washington to improve Azeri-American relations, providing a counterweight to the influential Armenian lobby. According to Azerbaijan's first president, Abulfas Elchibey, "Israel could help Azerbaijan in [the] Karabakh problem by convincing the Americans to stop the Armenians. Azerbaijani diplomats recognized the need to diversify their contacts in Washington, especially after the U.S. Congress imposed sanctions on Azerbaijan at the behest of the Armenian lobby following the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani military officials also believed that Israeli firms could better equip the ragtag Azerbaijani army, which needed new weapons following its defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh. On several occasions, Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's president between 1993 and 2003, personally requested military assistance from Israeli prime ministers."

In describing the benefits of the Israeli lobby to Azerbaijan, Bourtman writes: "in the mid 1990's, struggling to piece together the weak and dysfunctional Azerbaijani state, President Aliyev moved towards Jerusalem, thereby winning the allegiance of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington." He then quotes Hassan Hassanov, Azerbaijan's foreign minister, who stated in 1997: "We don't conceal that we rely on the Israeli lobby in the U.S." Bourtman explains: "This paid dividends when, in 2002, President Bush waived Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. In a rare and understated public admission, an official at the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington acknowledged that, "Jewish organizations made a certain contribution in the Section 907 waiving process."

Beyond lobbying assistance, Bourtman reveals the extent of Azerbaijan's reliance on Israeli weaponry: "Following its loss in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku reached out to Israel for help in rebuilding its military. Israeli defense firms obliged, selling Azerbaijan advanced aviation, antitank, artillery, and anti-infantry weapon systems. The arms trade has continued. In 2004, the Azerbaijani and Israeli press both reported that an undisclosed Israeli weapons system was being sent to Turkey where it would be assembled and then delivered to Azerbaijan. While Israeli, Turkish, and Azerbaijani officials denied the report, Israeli policy prohibits confirmation of such deals, an Azerbaijani military official defended the purchase, saying "our country's interest in Israeli weapons is natural as this country possesses up-to-date types of weapons, military hardware, and special equipment. Weapons sales and shared-threat perception have smoothed intelligence and security cooperation. Israeli firms built and guard the fence around Baku's international airport, monitor and help protect Azerbaijan's energy infrastructure, and even provide security for Azerbaijan's president on his foreign visits. Israeli intelligence operatives help collect human intelligence about extremist Islamist organizations in the region and monitor the troop deployments of Azerbaijan's neighbors especially Iran. In a Washington Institute for Near East Policy analysis, analysts Soner Cagaptay and Alexander Murinson alluded to reports that Israeli intelligence maintains listening posts along the Azerbaijani border with Iran."

Bourtman further observes that Turkey "has benefited the most from the development of Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation." In August 1997, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku, he and Pres. Heydar Aliyev "discussed various issues ranging from new oil deals, to Iran's nuclear ambitions, to trilateral cooperation between Israel, Turkey, and Azerbaijan," Bourtman writes.

Despite rosy reports by Azeri officials and American-Jewish organizations about the freedoms enjoyed by Jews in Azerbaijan, Bourtman refers to an article in the Feb. 15, 2006 issue of Haa'retz newspaper which ominously reported that Israeli officials "worry about the recent spike in violence by radical Islamists against Jewish communities in Azerbaijan."

The month-long massive Israeli bombings of Lebanon could make Azerbaijan's leaders more cautious in their courtship of Israel and strain the ties between the two countries. As a sign of increasing tensions, already there have been several public demonstrations against these bombings in recent days in front of the Israeli Embassy in Baku which the authorities brutally dispersed.

Even before this latest negative turn of events, Bourtman reported that Azerbaijan had decided "to curtail expansion of cooperation with Israel," not wanting to be seen by fellow Muslims as being too close to the Tel Aviv government. Interestingly, he writes that Azerbaijani authorities also feel that "they have exhausted the use of pro-Israel groups in Washington."

It looks like the Azeris used the Israeli lobby when it served their interests, and now that close association with Israel has become a liability, they have decided to ditch the Jewish lobby unceremoniously!