Israel's president, Shimon Peres, wrapped up a landmark visit to Azerbaijan on June 29, during which he endorsed Baku's efforts to retain control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Peres' two-day visit yielded intergovernmental agreements covering cultural and educational cooperation, and produced discussion on ways to expand trade. But underlying the trip was the matter of oil. Azerbaijan has emerged as a major supplier of energy for Israel, in particular about 20 percent of the Middle Eastern state's oil needs.
From Baku's perspective, the Peres visit highlighted the benefits of strengthening bilateral ties. As the Israeli president's endorsement for Azerbaijan's Karabakh position underscored, President Ilham Aliyev's administration in Baku is discovering that Israel can be a valuable source of political support.
Israel's backing could prove especially useful in the ongoing public relations battle in the United States and Europe surrounding the Karabakh peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Peres in Baku encouraged Azerbaijan to develop closer relations not only with Israel, but also with Jewish communities and organizations abroad, especially in the United States. "We [Israel and the Jewish Diaspora] will do all we can to support Azerbaijan's territorial integrity," Peres said. He went on to urge Baku to open an embassy in Israel.
Asim Mollazade, an MP and member of an Israeli-Azerbaijani inter-parliamentary group, indicated that Baku would be following Peres' advice to court Jewish Diaspora organizations. "International Jewish organizations could provide significant political support to Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue," the MP said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Azerbaijani officials are also interested in bolstering ties to Israel's arms industry. "Israel is among the few countries that could supply unmanned aircrafts, anti-missile defense neutralization systems and other modern military equipment to Azerbaijan," said Rasim Musabekov, a Baku-based political analyst.
Beyond energy exports, Baku can offer Israel political support of its own, Musabekov added. "Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country and it is important for Israel to have good relations with it," he said in an interview with EurasiaNet on June 28.
Peres in Baku noted the "atmosphere of tolerance" in Azerbaijan and thanked the Aliyev administration for the "good conditions of the Jewish community in the country." In a television interview on the eve of his arrival in Baku, Peres described Azerbaijan as a model for "mutual trust and respect between the Muslims and Jews."
Conservative Muslims in Baku were not so welcoming of Peres, however. In the weeks leading up to his arrival, various leaders of conservative Islamic groups criticized the Azerbaijani government for rolling out the red carpet for an Israeli head of state. Much of the criticism was connected to events in the West Bank and Gaza. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the imam of the Juma religious community, insisted Peres' trip was a source of "shame and dishonor" for the Azerbaijani government.
On June 23, residents of the town of Nardaran, a bastion of religious conservatism, held a protest. In addition, a picket was carried out on June 27 outside of the Foreign Ministry's building in Baku. Police quickly dispersed about 200 protesters.
Hardliners in Iran were also outspoken in their criticism of the Peres trip, but Azerbaijani officials pushed back. Ali Hasanov, head of the political department of the presidential administration, pointed out that Iran and Armenia have strong ties. "Our policy toward Iran is that there should not be threat from Iranian territory to Azerbaijan and vice-versa," Hasanov told EurasiaNet in early June.
Hasanov went on to vigorously defend Baku from domestic critics. "Azerbaijan's policy is adequate towards the positive and negative sides of Israeli policy," Hasanov said. "Baku has condemned Israel for [the violence in the] Palestinian territories many times. However, it [such criticism] is not a reason not to develop relations with Israel."
From Baku, Peres was due to travel to Kazakhstan, where he was scheduled to hold talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other officials, as well as attend an inter-faith conference.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.