As the first Muslim-majority country represented at the highly influential American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington, D.C. last week, Azerbaijan was represented by Finance Minister Samir Sharifov, who spoke about the relations between the Caspian region country and the world’s only Jewish state.
“Cooperation with Israel is not limited to oil supply, we are interested in widening cooperation in defense and transfer of technology,” Sharifov told conference attendees on March 1, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Sharifov said defense cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel includes arms sales by the latter. According to data compiled by the Stockholm International and Peace Research Institute, between 2014 and 2018, Azerbaijan was the second-largest buyer of Israeli arms, making up 17 percent of the country’s arms exports.
In 2017, Baku bought Israeli weapons worth $137 million. In 2016, President Ilham Aliyev said contracts for the purchase of defense equipment between Azerbaijan, which borders Iran in the south and Russia to the north, and Israeli companies reached an aggregate total of $4.85 billion.
Israel’s domestically-produced Harop kamikaze drones have been sold to Azerbaijan – the only buyer in the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea regions. Earlier last year, officials in Baku struck a deal to purchase SkyStriker drones from Elbit Systems, an Israeli electronics company and the first foreign export deal for that specific drone.
Israel gets about 40-45 percent of its oil needs from Azerbaijan via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which reaches Israel via tankers that dock in the Turkish port city of Ceyhan. In 2018, the total value of trade between the two countries hit $1.3 billion from what was $672 million in 2017.
AIPAC’s three-day event, which is considered the largest gathering of America's pro-Israel community, opened this year on March 1 and wrapped up by Tuesday. Official representation of the Azerbaijani government at this year’s meeting also included remarks by First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, delivered by Minister Sharifov.
“It is gratifying that our former compatriots of Jewish origin, living nowadays in the United States and Israel, have maintained close ties with Azerbaijan and contribute to the strengthening of our relations with these countries. We are much grateful to them,” read Aliyeva’s remarks.
Mehriban Aliyeva's remarks provided insight into the different periods of Azerbaijani history at which Jews entered the picture, stretching from ancient to modern times.
“At the time of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920 – the first parliamentary democracy in the Muslim world – the Jewish community actively contributed to the development of the country,” she noted.
“Azerbaijan had also embraced thousands of Jews who tried to escape Nazi oppression during World War II and became a second home for them.”
Although the country of 10 million is predominantly Muslim, Azerbaijan has a long tradition of being welcoming to other religions, including Judaism. The only all-Jewish town, Krasnaya Sloboda (meaning “red village”) outside of Israel is located in Azerbaijan. The village was founded in the 18th century during the rule of Fatali Khan, who invited Jews living in other areas to establish their own settlement, guaranteeing their safety against any attack.
The overall number of Jews residing in Azerbaijan today is roughly 30,000.
"For Jews, Azerbaijan has always been a native place to live and to create. Today, there are eight Jewish organizations, seven synagogues, including five in the capital city Baku, and several Jewish schools in the country," Aliyeva noted. "Those synagogues receive annual financial assistance from the government of Azerbaijan."