Israel, Azerbaijan & New Problems Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel will be testing its relationship with Azerbaijan much sooner than people would have thought. FP’s enlightening article on an Israeli-Azeri alliance surprised countless journalists, politicos and Israel enthusiasts, so hearing Israel might risk jeopardizing would seem downright stupid. But that assumes that everything you need to know about Azerbaijan was in that article. Like my previous post on Armenia, most of the focus has been on Turkey. Israel can’t commemorate the Armenian Genocide without drawing Turkish ire. That’s far less of an issue with Turkish-Israeli ties already so cold they couldn’t get more frigid. But with Azerbaijan, suddenly Israel might have the same problem as it did with Ankara and the Turks.

Azerbaijan is itself a Turkic country (as opposed to “Turkish,” “TURKIC” is a much broader category that includes a bunch of ethnic groups, countries and languages spread across Asia). It has a strong historical relationship with the Ottoman Empire and the Turkic tribes that eventually made their way to Anatolia and founded that empire. What separates Azerbaijan from Turkey and other Turkic countries is that it is Shi’ite Muslim, like Iran. Unlike Iran, Azeris are secular, mostly thanks to being a part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. The break-up though led to a reigniting of Azerbaijan’s historical rivalry with the nearby Armenians. With both groups having their own countries, the two have been at war since the end of the Soviets, with heavy historical baggage being carried by both sides of the conflict.

The war with Armenia makes recognizing the Armenian Genocide in some ways even touchier an issue than it would be for Turkey. The Armenians, for their part, also see Azeris as having been complicit in the entire episode. That being said, Azerbaijan also doesn’t recognize the massacres as having been anything other than the collateral damage of war and nowhere near anything as systematic as the Holocaust.

But the world disagrees, like has been said millions of times. So now Israel faces the Azeris and not just the Turks when it comes to putting this issue to rest. A diplomatic crisis might be in the offing. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was disturbing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

Azeris are disturbed by the idea that more countries could recognize the event as a genocide, something publicly humiliating for Azerbaijan as much as it has been for Turkey. But why is Israel nervous about the entire thing? The questioner’s perspective seems to be one of anxiety, not anger. Despite the grandstanding and outrage from Turkey whenever a country brings up the historical calamity, it’s not power the Turks project but nervousness. Turkey and Azerbaijan need Israel as much as Israel needs them, and not just on this issue. More practical issues, like defense and the economy, have made the two countries’ relationship with Israel important. Azerbaijan might be an asset against Iran – a possible base for Israeli jets, rescue crews and monitoring technology – but Israel also has been big for the Azeri economy and giving Baku’s leaders more of an outlet to the outside world. The government there has a sullied rep, so good press fighting the dark side in Iran is welcomed press.

Members of the Knesset have always been split on the issue of disrupting ties with Turkey over this, but it’s an untested theory that Turkey would disrupt ties with Israel. It’s even further unknown, probably more improbably Azerbaijan would do such a thing. Armenia also has a border with Iran, and Azerbaijan would be in dire straits if it sacrificed all its connections with Israel in retaliation for the way Israel looked at history. It would be more ironic and humiliating if that resulted in Israel building up its ties with Armenia, creating a major problem for Azerbaijan’s security that wouldn’t have existed if not for a stubborn, emotional reaction to a token acknowledgement of an event 100 years in the past.

Israel lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around.

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