Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warm embrace of Hamas and long history of antisemitic statements, Israeli-Turkish relations have seen a steady rise in this past year. Last June, the two nations collaborated to bust Iranian plots to kidnap and attack Israelis. Two months later, Israel and Turkey announced the full restoration of diplomatic ties. And just last month, an Israeli mission saved the lives of 19 Turks after a major earthquake in the southeast of the country. Erdogan expressed his gratitude to Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and said Turkey would never forget the aid Israel provided.
The small Caspian republic of Azerbaijan has been rooting from the sidelines. Given that both countries are crucial to its survival, Azerbaijan has made Turkish-Israeli normalization one of its main foreign policy goals.
A tough neighborhood
Azerbaijan resides in a tough neighborhood between the imperialist rogue nations of Iran and Russia and its sworn enemy Armenia. Needing to stay strong in its seemingly never-ending war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and not wanting to fall into the shadow of Russia or Iran, Baku has adapted through shrewd foreign policy and strategic partnerships.
Azerbaijan and Turkey often refer to their relations as “one nation, two states.” The two Turkic countries are highly invested in each other economically and have almost always seen eye-to-eye on mutual foreign policy goals. Erdogan has said that Turkey would not hesitate to stand against those who attack Azerbaijan and that the countries’ friendship is “eternal.” In the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, Turkey provided military experts, weapons, and Syrian rebels in support of Azerbaijan.
Israel also has mutually vital relations with Azerbaijan. Jerusalem sells Baku billions of dollars of crucial weapons and military technology and Azerbaijan supplies Israel with more than half of its oil needs and gives Israel a base from which to strike Iran. As of 2021, Israel provided 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s imported arms. These weapons, especially the Harop precision drones, and missile interceptor systems, played a major role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war.
This helps explain why Azerbaijan so eagerly announced its willingness to host a trilateral summit with Ankara and Jerusalem while talks were taking place to restore relations. For Azerbaijan, the deepening of relations between their closest allies could not have come at a better time as the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to grow.
Last October, Iran held military exercises on the border with Azerbaijan, simulating an invasion. Two months later, Azerbaijani and Turkish forces held joint military exercises on the same border, deploying Turkish F16 fighter jets. In January of this year, Baku opened its first embassy in Tel Aviv. Later that month, a gunman shot up the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, killing the security chief and leading Baku to evacuate the embassy and bust a ring of Iranian spies operating on Azerbaijani territory.
This latest conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran was largely sparked by two factors: the deepening recent ties between Azerbaijan and Israel and the Iranian backing of Armenia during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Despite the Islamic Republic’s large ethnic Azeri minority, comprising some 16 percent of its population, Tehran has chosen to align with Armenia against Azerbaijan in conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Islamic Republic sees Armenia as a crucial trading and strategic partner and is concerned that an Azerbaijani victory in Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to the establishment of the Zangezur corridor. The Zangezur corridor is an overland transport route coveted by Baku that would connect the Azerbaijani Nakhchivan enclave to the east of the country and leave Azerbaijan as Iran’s only passage to the South Caucasus region. The Zangezur corridor would additionally provide an uninterrupted overland route from Ankara to Baku, which Iran also sees as a threat, given its rocky relationship with both Turkic countries. Tehran has previously used its control over a critical supply line between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan enclave through its territory as leverage to influence Azerbaijani policy. The establishment of the Zangezur corridor would remove this threat.
Other tensions have contributed to a larger rift between Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic. Azerbaijani officials have often spoken out against the Islamic Republic’s repression of its up to 20 million ethnic Azeri population in the Northwest of the country. Tehran fears that this minority, which has previously expressed its desire to secede, may be supported by Azerbaijan, the United States, and Israel.
All this falls against the backdrop of subversive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activities seeking to change Azerbaijan’s secular policies, including backing the radical Shia militant group, the Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan, as well as Hezbollah cells in Azerbaijan. Within Azerbaijan, the IRGC has sought to carry out terrorist attacks on Israeli, Jewish, and Western targets, subvert the Azerbaijani government, export Iranian ideology, and raise money through criminal activities to fund IRGC activities and circumvent sanctions, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center,
A reliable alliance
Baku has had stable and mutually beneficial relations with Israel dating from shortly after its independence. Trade and security cooperation has grown with no reported problems ever since relations were established in 1992. And following Israel’s support for Azerbaijan in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, relations have reached a new height. Israel and Azerbaijan have also signed major strategic infrastructure agreements including an agreement for Israel to help rebuild and modernize agricultural and water management systems in Azerbaijan. Israeli specialists have taken a leading role in building smart villages and computerized agricultural complexes in areas in Nagorno-Karabakh that were recaptured by Azerbaijan during the war.
The strongest area of cooperation between the two countries has been in the military sphere, especially in defense against Iran. Baku has let Israel permanently station F35s on its territory and according to several media reports, it has prepared a special airfield for Israeli planes to take off from if Jerusalem decides to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. A senior Israeli military source told the online Arabic-language publication Elaph that Jerusalem would provide air support if a conflict broke out between Tehran and Baku. Additionally, Azerbaijan has reportedly allowed the Mossad to set up a forwarding branch to monitor and likely conduct espionage against the Iranian regime. Tehran believes that Israel’s theft of Iranian top secret nuclear files in 2018 involved the use of Azerbaijan as a staging ground. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has frequently threatened Azerbaijan over this sort of cooperation with Israel.
This is why Iran has become increasingly incensed at the brazenness of Azerbaijan’s much more open support for Israel following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan has shown little regard for Iranian disapproval. In response to Iranian threats in 2021, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev posted a photo of himself caressing an Israeli-made Harop drone near the Iranian border.
Azerbaijan and Turkey have close relations, and both seem to sincerely believe in the ideal of “one nation two states.” Azerbaijan has however had moments of frustration in its relationship with Turkey under Erdogan. In 2009, tensions arose when Russia leaked that Turkey and Armenia were conducting secret negotiations. In a leaked 2010 conversation with then U.S. Undersecretary William Burns, Aliyev “made clear his distaste” with Erdogan’s rule in Turkey and criticized Ankara’s political ‘naïveté,’ hostility to Israel, Islamist politics, and support for Hamas.
Both these spats were quickly resolved, and Turkey and Azerbaijan enjoy chummy relations. During Turkey’s dispute with Greece over gas fields in the East Mediterranean in 2020, Aliyev vowed to stand with Turkey “under any circumstances without any hesitation.” The two Turkic countries have been cooperating on the potential opening of a “Middle Corridor” trade route from China bypassing Russia and Iran and have increased both trade and military cooperation in recent years.
While Turkey and Azerbaijan will likely continue to increase their cooperation, their methods of governance and cultural values continue to differ. Azerbaijan prides itself on its secularity. The country’s constitution includes the separation of religion and state and the Aliyev government has often tried to limit the influence of religion in politics and daily life, vowing to protect the country’s “secular way of life and development.” Azerbaijan is by far the most secular country in the Muslim world and the South Caucasus region.
Turkey is much the opposite. Despite the extreme reverence for the secular Founding Father of Modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turks as a rule are considerably more religious than Azerbaijanis. Much of Erdogan’s appeal to his base is his religiosity and attempts to create a “pious generation” in Turkey. There have been some signs that this policy may be failing including a 2019 poll that showed a small but significant drop in religious piety since 2008. Even so, the vast majority of Turks are still religious and the importance of Islam in Turkish society is not likely to change significantly.
A volatile partnership
Turkey and Israel historically had great relations – until Erdogan became president. In 1949, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and for decades the two countries had deep economic and military ties. These amicable relations lasted until Erdogan began to champion the Palestinian cause. In 2010, a break in relations arose from the Mavi Marmara incident, when a flotilla of armed-Turkish activists attempted to break the Gaza blockade. The breach caused the IDF to intervene and when the activists attacked IDF soldiers that boarded the ships, the IDF responded by killing nine. This incident led Ankara to expel the Israeli ambassador and significantly reduce relations.
In 2016, Turkey and Israel reconciled after Israel agreed to provide roughly $20 million for the families of the activists killed in the Mavi Marmara incident. This détente only lasted until 2018, when Turkey broke relations over the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Israeli ambassador was expelled and Erdogan declared a three-day national mourning. After the announcement of the Abraham Accords in August 2020, Erdogan threatened to break ties with the United Arab Emirates. However, when war broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh the next month, Ankara and Jerusalem found themselves on the same side defending Azerbaijan. This was a reminder to both countries of what could be accomplished together.
By December 2020, the Erdogan Administration found itself completely isolated from the region and mired in an economic crisis largely caused by its belligerent politics. In response, the government switched gears, deciding to try to mend relations it had ruined over the past decade. As part of this shift, the Turkish government seems to have stopped or slowed down exporting political Islam as a key part of its foreign policy as part of a shift to repair relations with Egypt and the Gulf countries.
In 2022, Turkey sought to improve its relations with Israel, becoming a silent partner to the Abraham Accords it had previously condemned. Jerusalem warily agreed, as although it does not trust Turkey under Erdogan, it has always sought peace with Turkey. Israel understands the immense benefits that could be had from economic and security cooperation and realizes Ankara’s power as a potential agitator over the Palestinian cause.
Although relations are slowly improving, Israel understands the risks of working with the mercurial Erdogan. Additionally, Israelis have not forgotten the numerous antisemitic remarks made by Erdogan while the two countries were at a standoff including saying Israel has the “spirit of Hitler” and “sucks the blood of small children.” Jerusalem is additionally concerned about the safe haven that Erdogan has offered to members of Hamas, a group he has praised as a “resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland.” Both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been critical of Turkey’s latest rapprochement with Israel.
During the spats with Turkey, Israel became much closer to Greece and Cyprus, fellow Mediterranean countries wary of Turkey’s belligerence. Israel has reassured both Athens and Nicosia that the improving relations with Ankara will not affect their future cooperation. Israel may be able to mediate between the two countries in the future.
Life after Erdogan?
Despite the close cultural and linguistic ties between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Baku has had more stable relations with Israel than Ankara. Both countries engage in secular and realist geopolitics that have brought them immense benefits in the spheres of defense and the economy.
Israel’s issues with Turkey have mostly been a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and periods of strife between the Israelis and Palestinians will be a test of this latest rapprochement. We will see this during the upcoming month of Ramadan as the month-long Muslim holiday often leads to a peak in Israeli-Palestinian tensions. However, Azerbaijani tensions with Iran could bring Israel and Turkey together as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War did, although there is no guarantee while Erdogan is in power. Ankara came to this recent rapprochement from a place of weakness, and once it feels it is strong, it may revert to Islamist policies that align with Erdogan’s ideology.
Today there are signs that Erdogan’s days may be numbered. With an economy in shambles and public anger over the government’s response to the recent earthquake, Turkey is at a crossroads and it is unclear if Erdogan will be able to continue. Just this week Turkish opposition parties that include a wide range of parties such as supporters of Ataturk’s party, Islamists, and leftists picked Kemal Kilicdaroglu to run in the upcoming elections in May. Kilicdaroglu has expressed his desire to reorient Turkey to the West and tone down Ankara’s combative foreign policy.
For Israel, new leadership in Turkey would mean a more reliable and collaborative partner. This does not mean relations will become as good as they are with Azerbaijan. Most Turks don’t like Israel and any government will be bound to criticize its confrontations with the Palestinians. However, a change of government would likely influence public opinion and unlike in countries like Egypt, there is no real anti-normalization movement in Turkey.
Erdogan came to power in 2003 after Turkey mismanaged aid for survivors of a major earthquake in 1999. He may be forced to leave due to his government’s mishandling of this latest earthquake. If he does, the road to a continued improvement of relations between Israel and Turkey may run through Baku.
Joseph Epstein is a Legislative Fellow for the Endowment for Middle East Truth
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