Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: Israel

Armenia Acts as Iran’s Ally, and This Alienates Us from Armenia and Brings Closer to Azerbaijan

Alek D. Epstein, historian, sociologist, Israel 

- What kind of relations is Israel developing with the countries of the South Caucasus at the moment?

I think that in Israel there are no relations as such with the countries of the South Caucasus, this region is not singled out for us. We have special relations with Georgia, largely due to the presence of a sizeable Georgian-Jewish diaspora in Israel over the past 50 years. We don’t have such a diaspora from Armenia. There is a significant Jewish diaspora from Azerbaijan, an active community called “AzIz” headed by Lev Spivak, and Yitzhak Gagulashvili, representative of immigrants from Georgia, was even a member of the Knesset.
In terms of geopolitics, relations with Turkey and Iran are, in different ways, extremely important to Israel. Armenia has different relations with these two states. Turkey, for obvious reasons, since 1915, if not earlier, has been perceived as a fierce enemy, and of all its neighbors, the Republic of Armenia has perhaps the best relations with Iran, and for Israel this is a huge problem. Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship to a very great extent is a derivative of Israeli-Iranian relationship. Azerbaijan is perceived as a base from which Israel conducts its at least intelligence, not to say sabotage activities against the military programs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Armenia, on the contrary, acts as Iran’s ally, and this awfully alienates us from Armenia and brings closer to Azerbaijan, despite Armenian hopes.
It is clear that from a moral perspective it is difficult to find people closer to us, Jews, than Armenians. Both we and you lived through an attempt of annihilation, and despite this, both of us were able to survive and build statehood, both for us, and for you, the majority of the representatives of the titular nation live in the diaspora, and we’ve got high hopes for the diaspora support to our national states.
Contrary to what one might expect, the relations between Israel and Armenia today are not like the ones of two friendly states. During the December 30, 2022 voting of the Palestinian resolution at the UN General Assembly on transferring the case against Israel to the international court as a systematic violator of international law, Armenia, along with Azerbaijan, voted against Israel, while 25 countries voted against this shameful resolution.
One would expect that there would be much closer relations between Israel and Armenia due to common range of problems we have. After all, Nagorno-Karabakh and 7 adjacent regions, which Armenia lost during the second war, are quite similar to the so-called controlled territories that we have, where I live myself - on the western bank of the Jordan River, in Judea and Samaria. These regions, like those 7 regions linking Armenia and Karabakh, are not part of the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, even under Israeli law. When Armenia suffered from Azerbaijan's attack, what did the “civilized” society of Armenia say? “Wait a second, no one has attacked the sovereign territory of Armenia, and from the viewpoint of Armenian legislation, you yourself did not extend your jurisdiction to this either.” Israel has exactly the same problem.
The next key common problem is that of diaspora. Both we and you overestimate the influence of the diasporas and the readiness of our diasporas to pull chestnuts out of the fire for us. In Armenia, there is an undue overestimation of the role of the Armenian diaspora in France, which, they say, twirls the Elysee Palace, in Israel there is an undue overestimation of the Jewish diaspora in the United States, which, they say, twirls the White House. We have seen from experience that in both Armenian and Israeli cases the diasporas will do extremely little for us. We, by and large, have no one to rely on, except for ourselves. Both Armenia and Israel are almost the only democratic countries in the regions. When was the last time the government changed in Azerbaijan? When Heydar Aliyev ousted Surat Huseynov and returned to power, 30 years ago.
There is democracy in Turkey to some extent, but it is also very specific. This democracy is rather tricky for both Israel and Armenia. Since Nikol Pashinyan, having lost the war, largely provoked by his short-sighted course, managed to retain power for another term. I can't imagine this situation in Israel: in 1973 we ended the Yom Kippur War on much better terms than Armenia did the second Karabakh war, and still the government was swept away. I think the whole world is watching and wondering: “If the citizens of the Republic of Armenia themselves have no complaints against Pashinyan, despite the fact that he lost 85% of the Armenia-controlled territories, which the world considers Azerbaijani, why should we have any problems with this?” This thing should have been dealt with by the Armenian people themselves, I believe this internal dialogue didn’t take place.

- What is your comment (and official Israel’s comment) on the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensuing humanitarian crisis, as well as other methods of pressure applied by Azerbaijan towards the Nagorno-Karabakh residents and Armenia?

I’ve written about this that the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh is outrageous and terrible, but it’s not that the whole world could care less, the whole world doesn’t react to it, although the blockade has been going on since December 12 (2022). We have just celebrated the 80th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, and no one said that another blockade is continuing somewhere out there in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is another extremely bad symptom for all humanity and reminds me of the 1967 blockade of the Israeli Port of Eilat by Egyptian president Nasser. When the Israeli foreign minister rushed to Lyndon Johnson, to London and Paris, they spread their hands - “we just cannot start a war because of the blockade of the Port of Eilat.” Armenia is now being told the same thing - “it's upsetting, of course, but we cannot start a war with Azerbaijan because of the Lachin Corridor, the road to Stepanakert.” It is, in general, bitter, very painful. We come to the conclusion that Armenia, like Israel, has no one to rely on, except for its armed forces and the capacity to solve a problem in any possible way. All hope for international diplomacy, foreign actors who will come and say “well, well, well, how can you do that?”, for some kind of international structures is an illusion. Official Jerusalem does not in any way comment on the humanitarian crisis and the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, no one cares about this. When an article about the matter was published in “Yedioth Ahronoth” (“Latest News”), the largest Israeli newspaper in Hebrew, it was reported that Azerbaijan was allegedly attributing this to environmental concerns, but these are trumped-up concerns: Azerbaijan is just pursuing such a policy. I haven’t seen a single protest action, not a single statement by the Israeli foreign minister, neither the old one nor the new one (our government has recently changed) on this topic, because Israel does not want to mess with Azerbaijan, as Azerbaijan is important. And also because Israel, after many years of extreme tenseness, now has some warming in relations with Turkey, and at the same time, Israel has extremely bad relations with Iran, which is an Armenian ally. Through the prism of these geopolitical factors, Israel does not and will not pay attention to the Karabakh factor, no matter how hurt I am.

-  Under what circumstances can the prospect for establishing a lasting regime of stability in the South Caucasus emerge? Does it depend solely on the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation?

Just as it is wrong to call the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “a conflict in the Middle East (although this is repeated in thousands of books, and the Middle East is much larger), so the South Caucasus cannot be limited to Nagorno-Karabakh. Let's not forget that Azerbaijan has its own demands for establishing a corridor to Nakhichevan. I think that Azerbaijan will exercise them - and I doubt that exclusively by peaceful means. What would I expect in this case? I anticipate a third war over Nakhichevan corridor and for Azerbaijan connecting by land with Turkey. This will be a more challenging situation, as it requires military action on the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia. Will anyone defend Armenia? I'm afraid not.

- Does Israel have an agenda regarding the developing new algorithms of relations between external actors (Russia, the United States, other Western countries and structures, Turkey, Iran) and the countries of the South Caucasus? Which countries' actions are shaping this agenda?

Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have been deteriorating for 30 years, I don’t see anything radically new. Initially, Heydar Aliyev had a choice: who to identify the Azerbaijani people with. Ethnographers considered the Azerbaijani people to be Persians all their lives. Heydar Aliyev, apparently, did not like the political regime in Iran, and he declared the Azerbaijani people to be Turks. They rewrote the history of ethnogenesis so as not to be Iranians. Let's not forget that South Azerbaijan is the largest region of Iran, and from the point of view of ethnography, Iranians and Azerbaijanis, are one nation that, from a political point of view, ceased to be one nation. These processes are quite interesting - how Russians and Ukrainians, who in general are one nation, Azerbaijanis and Persians, who are one nation, are separated on opposite sides. Nothing fundamentally new, no fatal changes have occurred. It’s not the first year, and not even the first decade of tense relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. Iran has repeatedly expressed indignation at Azerbaijan over the activities of Israel from Azerbaijani territory. This activity is ongoing, I don't see any new coalitions here. No, I don't see any new frameworks in the South Caucasus region, in which European, American mediators, Israelis would be engaged. The axis will run through the same place: on the one hand - Turkey, on the other hand - Iran. This is the main line of confrontation that exists, and it will remain. To my great regret, the Republic of Armenia doesn’t really have a choice, Armenia ends up on the opposite side of the barricades as an ally of Iran and an enemy of Azerbaijan.
As an individual, I feel very sorry that this is so: no other people, who has suffered so much, is closer than Armenians, no other people would understand us so well and be understood by us so deeply. It is a great tragedy that Jews and Armenians have not developed interstate relations in the way they should have developed. If one asks me what people in the whole world should be the closest to the Jews and Israel, I will say - Armenians. If one asks me to name fifty states with which Israel has the least problematic relations, I will not mention Armenia among them. This difference between practical and moral politics, unfortunately, has a huge impact.

A couple of years ago I wrote two books: one is called “Israel and Egypt: Five Wars in a Quarter-Century,” and the second is called "Israel and Egypt: Half a Century Without War.” This is an example that could inspire people in the South Caucasus as well. War and enmity do not have to be eternal, today the Aliyev clan is in power, and tomorrow there will be someone else. Today, there is one regime in power in Armenia, and we know that it has changed many times. Look at the relationship between Israel and Germany 70 years after the Holocaust. They are at least constructive, if not more. I very much wish the Republic of Armenia to get out of this isolation, to build good-neighborly, constructive relations with the surrounding states, mutually respectful relations with Turkey. I believe that if Armenia had built them, the problem with Azerbaijan would not have disappeared, but would have significantly weakened. Turkey is pursuing an exceptionally multi-vector, quite unique foreign policy, and I think that the apparent enmity due to the events of 1915 does not contribute to the interests of Armenia today. This feeling that the entire world is guilty before us, owes us something, does not help either Israel or Armenia. I really hope that Armenia (one of the most civilized, ancient peoples on earth) will find a place much more worthy of her than the one she currently occupies.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.


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