Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev chat before a press conference in a file photo. Photo: Azerbaijani Presidential Press Service

Israel, despite sympathy for the Armenian people at a civic level, is committed to maintaining pivotal support for its ally Azerbaijan in the war for Nagorno Karabakh.

“Azerbaijan would not be able to continue its operation at this intensity without our support,” a senior source in the Israeli Ministry of Defense told Asia Times on condition of anonymity. The ministry is responsible for all official Israeli arms sales.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided nearly two-thirds (61%) of all arms imports to Baku over the past year, which have had a significant influence on how the current hostilities are being fought.

One of the most significant systems Israel has provided the Azeris is the IAI Harop. This is a loitering munition, referred to in popular parlance as a “suicide drone”, as it self-destructs upon hitting the target. It is a sophisticated weapon, easily able to overcome any systems possessed by the Armenians and allowed the Azerbaijani military to hit targets at will.

Israel has also provided its M095 DPICM cluster munitions to Baku. Amnesty International on October 5 accused the Azerbaijani government of dropping the weapons on civilians areas in Nagorno Karabakh. Cluster munitions were declared illegal by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which came into effect in 2008.

None of the relevant parties – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Israel – are signatories to the convention. Officials in Israel do not deny their strategic relationship with Baku.

“The State of Israel has longstanding relations with Azerbaijan,” President Reuven Rivlin said. However, he insisted that “the cooperation between the two countries is not aimed against any side.”

The latter statement is certainly not true. while Israel may not specifically want this war to continue, the military technology it provides has been pivotal.

Moreover, the intensification of hostilities has not slowed Israeli arms sales to Baku. On the contrary, reports have flagged a significant airlift of arms and supplies from Israel to Azerbaijan over the two-and-a-half week conflict.

The senior Defense Ministry source confirmed the continuous airlifts, probably the most extensive aerial resupply Israel has executed.

The Azerbaijani government meanwhile has made its support for Israel very public.

Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov sought to depict Armenia as a common threat during a recent webinar with the Jewish Institute for National Security Studies of America.

“Armenians don’t have precision weapons. If you see the way they shoot, it’s either 1940s Soviet military, or 1960s Middle Eastern terrorists,” Suleymanov said. “They just shoot in the direction of civilians hoping that there will be a response, pretty much the same tactic that is used against Israel.”

The publicity is designed to foster greater US support for the cause. The Trump administration, a dogged enemy of Tehran itself, has been in lockstep with Israel in its anti-Iran policies. Baku has jumped on the bandwagon.

Israeli support for Azerbaijan has meanwhile had a detrimental effect on its relations with Yerevan.

The Armenian and Nagorno Karabakh flags sway in the wind in the old city of Jerusalem’s Armenian quarter on October 7, 2020, as a display of support with the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP

Armenia recalls ambassador

The Armenian government had only just overcome the Israeli refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide and its long-standing military support for Azerbaijan when it opened an embassy in Israel in September.

Weeks later, angered over the extensive use of Israeli arms against Armenian targets in Karabakh, Armenia recalled its ambassador.

Why is Israel so invested in Azerbaijan, that it is willing to damage relations with Armenia?

Israel has never taken an official position on the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous territory is located within Azerbaijan’s UN-recognized borders, but Armenians, the historic majority, seized autonomy during the breakup of the Soviet Union and it has functioned as an Armenia-backed republic for nearly three decades.

Israel has long had an emotional connection with the Armenian people, forged through common suffering. The Armenian quarter in Jerusalem is home to one of the oldest Armenian communities on earth.

The two nations also have well-developed trade relations, which are of particular importance for Yerevan. Armenia receives 4.8% of its imports from Israel, while Israel receives 7.1% of its exports.

The strongest ties that bind Armenia with the Jewish state relate to the Armenian Genocide. These atrocities took place in the 1915-1923 period when roughly 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire.

During World War II, Nazi Germany would commit genocide against the Jewish people, killing approximately 6 million Jews. For both nations, these traumatic events are considered a defining part of the national identity.

Most Jews identify with the harrowing events of the Armenian genocide. But the Israeli government has avoided doing so for geopolitical reasons. In the past, it rejected this step to safeguard the geopolitical partnership it once shared with Turkey, which continues to deny the atrocities it committed.

Israel has a much firmer strategic relationship with Azerbaijan. Despite being a Muslim majority nation, the Azeris were quick to recognize Israel after independence. They have since looked to the Jewish state for military and logistical support.

The main goal of Israeli policy in recent years has been the need to isolate and contain Iranian regional influence. Azerbaijan borders Iran and, according to leaks, has permitted Israel to use its airfields to strike nuclear targets in the Islamic Republic.

In addition, Israeli intelligence has reportedly utilized Azerbaijani infrastructure to create listening posts and gather critical Iranian security information. These actions place Baku at great risk of Iranian retaliation. On Tuesday, Iran said its forces had shot down an Israeli-made drone that veered from the fighting in Karabakh on its territory.

Israel sells the Azerbaijanis arms both to reward it for the risks it takes on its behalf and to help defend the country against Iran.

Not all Israelis are happy with this policy, however.

Relatives with the coffin of soldier Abraham Sargyan, who was killed in the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Photo: Karen Minasayan/AFP

Fuel to the flame

A recent petition considered by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem reflects this. Zionist activist Elie Joseph charged that Azerbaijan was committing war crimes in Armenia using Israeli arms, and said he wished his country would cease all arms sales to Baku. Some of the more disturbing images to emerge from the Karabakh battlefield have been aerial videos showing the drone killings of groups of Armenian soldiers from the air.

The court did not debate the petition, however, determining there was not enough corroborating evidence to support the charges that Azerbaijani actions amounted to war crimes.

Joseph is an eccentric Zionist activist, who has gone on several hunger strikes to support causes as varied as the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to the cessation of violence in the evacuation of settlements in the occupied territories, and Russian assistance to Iran. Therefore, no one was surprised when he announced a hunger strike on this issue as well.

Although an extreme case, his support for Armenia most likely reflects the vague opinion of most Israelis. According to a poll conducted in 2015, a larger portion of Israelis is aware of the Armenian genocide (88%), which is one of the highest in the world. In a poll conducted in 2007, an absolute majority of 82.5% agreed with the idea that Jewish people, who carry the historical memory of the Holocaust, have no right to deny the tragedies of other nations.

For these reasons, many notable Israelis have supported recognition of the genocide, despite the geopolitical repercussions. President Rivlin was a notable supporter of recognition in the past when he held a seat in Knesset. So are many other notable politicians in the ruling Likud party and elsewhere.

On August 1, 2016, the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture, and Sports recognized the Armenian Genocide. However, the Netanyahu government stopped a bill from going through to a vote.

The left-wing liberal Meretz party is now a notable supporter of Armenian causes. It has always supported recognition of the Genocide and now opposes arms sales to Azerbaijan. The head of the party, Nitzan Horowitz, wrote to Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Saturday, that “providing weapons at this time adds fuel to the flame… we must prevent the eventuality that this bleeding war will be exacerbated through Israeli arms.”

Yet between the ongoing demonstrations against Netanyahu and the massive closure of the entire economy for the second time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, most Israeli citizens do not have a strong opinion on a region they likely could not identify on the map. Moreover, Azerbaijan has a good reputation as an Israeli ally in policy-informed circles.

All this means that despite sympathy for Armenia in Israel, it will continue to conduct its policy in the Caucasus firmly along realpolitik lines. The Israeli attitude has always been, that as a nation encircled by enemies, it will take its friends where it can get them. As long as Azerbaijan is useful to Israel in its struggle against Iran, it will continue to support Baku materially.