Netanyahu’s Visit to Azerbaijan: Cozying Up to Despots

Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted everyone to know that his visit to Azerbaijan, part of a Central Asia mini-tour, was a foreign relations victory. Netanyahu said the visit proves that Israel is not shunned but “courted”; he boasted of winning trust from a Muslim-majority state, and of deepening bilateral relations including now-open, robust arms sales. Media coverage dutifully treated this as a foreign affairs story, looking at regional implications, especially vis-à-vis Iran. In the same week, over in Washington D.C., the pre-eminent U.S. Jewish and pro-Israel umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, co-hosted a “Hanukkah party celebrating religious freedom and diversity” with the Embassy of Azerbaijan, an unprecedented co-production (which was criticized in many quarters of the U.S. Jewish community).

The criticism in the U.S. highlighted something important: the disturbing implications of this visit for domestic governing policies and trends in both countries. In a recent paper comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the 25-year old Azerbaijan/Armenia conflict, I observed that both sides of each conflict are facing either a severe democracy deficit or significant erosion, to varying levels. Conflict and damage to democratic society appear closely linked.

Cozying up to Azerbaijan means embracing a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. Azerbaijan has hurtled down a deeply anti-democratic, semi-authoritarian path since independence in 1991. Its Freedom House ratings are now among the lowest possible: “Not Free,” or 16 on a scale from 0-100, deteriorating even compared to the previous year. Human rights workers, political opposition figures and journalists are regularly arrested, jailed, and face physical violence. The country is run through a corrupt, dynastic leadership, by the son of an earlier corrupt, semi-authoritarian leader.

Israel’s embrace of unsavory allies is nothing new. In earlier decades, during the Arab boycott, the Cold War and its own wars, Israel cultivated willing friends regardless of regime type; realpolitik trumped idealism, in international relations parlance. Thus Israel was close with Nicolae Ceaucescu’s Romania and Idi Amin’s Uganda, and counted apartheid South Africa as an ally too. Nor does Israel lack less-than-democratic allies today, cultivating strategic relations with Turkey and Russia, who display appalling contempt for democratic norms. Moreover, Netanyahu is on a search for new friends in response to creeping political pressure from traditional allies in Europe, to show that Israel doesn’t depend solely on their markets. He has nurtured African states and BRIC countries, and clearly views Central Asia as logical strategic addition.

But what makes Azerbaijan notable is how the protracted ethno-territorial conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh contributes to such a severely restricted political environment at home, justifying and perhaps perpetuating these practices.

Karabakh is a small pocket of territory inside Azerbaijan’s sovereign borders. As the Soviet Union fell apart, its majority Armenian population sought to break away from Azerbaijan, preferring to attach themselves to adjacent Armenia, as the republics became independent.

Azerbaijan was enraged at what it experienced as an attempt to dismember its territory. A vicious war broke out from 1991-1994, killing over 20,000 people, creating roughly 1 million refugees (the majority of them Azerbaijani). The resulting stalemate left the political status of Karabakh unresolved to this day. The population there is now almost exclusively Armenian after the flight of the Azeri minority; Armenians there are effectively self-governing, often considered a state-like entity but unrecognized by any other country. Yet Azerbaijan still seethes at the de facto loss of a part of its sovereign, national land.

Immediately after the war, newly-independent Azerbaijan began investing heavily in military armament, flush with oil money from its Caspian Sea fields. This build-up contributed to a mentality of conflict escalation, and there are regular skirmishes along what is called the “Line of Contact” with Karabakh.

The obsession with its territorial loss also fed an increasingly repressive political climate. By the mid-2000s, observers noted that local politicians competed for the most hard-line positions on the conflict. In the name of the existential cause, authorities cracked down on political protest over perceived electoral misconduct. The regime said that “Azerbaijan’s defeat in the war had been due to domestic turmoil,” in the words of Rasim Musabayov, a former advisor to the Azerbaijani leadership.

Leveraging the conflict to crush freedoms spread to other fields. In 2016, Freedom House reported that at least one journalist was jailed on charges of spying for Armenia; academics and students associated with political opposition have been likewise harassed or fired. In 2012, a nationally celebrated writer, Akram Aylisli, published a novella that included Azeri killings of Armenians during the conflict; politicians went on a rampage of incitement, calling to investigate his DNA (perhaps he was actually part Armenian?) and cut off his ear. He was stripped of his titles, his books burned, family members lost their jobs, and his work removed from educational curriculum. This past March, Azerbaijani authorities detained him on his way to a writer’s festival in Italy – part of a trend, say local sources.

Luckily Israel is nowhere near that level. But what if it’s a difference of degree rather than substance? In recent years, a department at Ben Gurion University was hounded by the state’s Council of Higher Education for its political leanings and novelist Dorit Rabinyan saw calls for her book involving a Jewish-Arab romance to be removed from school curriculum, along with the accompanying public vitriol. Governments Netanyahu has led have passed Israel’s most undemocratic laws to date, almost always involving some aspect of the conflict: the Nakba law, the boycott law and restrictive laws designed to target Arabs in Israel (the admissions committees law for small communities and the muezzin bill currently under debate.)

The infamous NGO law attempts to intimidate independent civil society groups who defend human rights and criticize government policy specifically regarding the conflict, echoing the tendency in Azerbaijan to harass human rights activity (in harsh ways), and snuff out government criticism.

Israel’s democratic culture is more tenuous now than in the past. Netanyahu obsessively portrays the occupation as an existential threat from Palestinians, but he also increasingly fuses Israeli left-wing opposition with the scariest physical threats of our time. His 2015 campaign ad accused the left of bringing ISIS to Jerusalem. When the head of B’tselem spoke recently at United Nations against the occupation, Likud coalition whip David Bitan called to strip him of his citizenship. He then suggested that Arab citizens shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they represent “Palestinian interests.” After Netanyahu’s infamous “Arabs voting in droves” video there’s little question who inspired, or legitimized Bitan.

All these together do not put Israel nearly at the level of Azerbaijan in terms of the democratic deficit. And it’s important to recall that Azerbaijan had little culture of democracy prior to independence; Israel inside the Green Line has certainly does.

But the parallels between the role of the conflicts within each society does not bode well. Both conflicts are viewed as existential threats to the very identity of the country. Both are heavily militarized – Azerbaijan with the help of Israeli arms sales – and have made military acquisition a top national and budget priority, often to the detriment of other social priorities. That in turn must be justified by fear-mongering or warmongering in the national rhetoric. Both experience regular deadly escalations. In April 2016, a mini-war over Nagorno-Karabakh caused hundreds of deaths on both sides; Israel experiences stabbing attacks and regular wars. These serve to keep the trauma fresh, the threat level high, and dissent toxic.

The old adage may be newly, and sadly relevant: “Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” – or who in the future, whom you may become.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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