Ever the underdog on the international stage, Israel again defied the odds with Netta Barzilai’s recent win in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. How did an Israeli singer overcome the increasingly anti-Israel, anti-Semitic sentiments pervading Europe to win this competition?
The headlines declared that Israel “overcame politics” to win Eurovision. If it would have been solely up to the contest’s judges on-site, Barzilai would have finished in third place. But televoters from eight countries—Australia, Azerbaijan, France, Georgia, Moldova, San Marino, Spain, and Ukraine—all gifted Israel their nation’s 12 points, paving the way for the Israeli singer’s victory.
In truth, Israel didn’t necessarily “overcome” anything. Through the altruistic acts of eight of its allies, Israel received precisely the support it deserves and should expect. And the country that truly stands out on the list is Azerbaijan, Israel’s stalwart Muslim-majority ally.
Yes, you heard that correctly: a Muslim-majority ally for the world’s only Jewish state. Like Barzilai’s Eurovision win, Israeli-Azerbaijani ties seem improbable, but at this point should come as no surprise. This deep, multifaceted bilateral relationship has thrived since 1992, and Azerbaijan’s Eurovision gift to Israel is just its latest feel-good story.
In fact, it’s much more than a feel-good story. Israeli-Azerbaijani ties, as well as the warm relationship between Azerbaijan and its own Jewish community, have significant geopolitical implications and serve as a global paradigm for interfaith tolerance.
Israel is, by far, the most pro-Western, advanced, and reliable ally that the U.S. has in the Middle East. In a different region, the same is true for Azerbaijan, America’s most-trusted partner in Eurasia. It’s no coincidence—Azerbaijan uses Israel as a somewhat of a model for its pro-West orientation, domestic politics, foreign policy, and military strategy.
Over time, Azerbaijan has purchased close to $5 billion in defense equipment from Israel, including an agreement in late 2016 to buy Israel’s highly successful Iron Dome missile defense technology. In 2012, Israel and Azerbaijan signed pacts totaling $1.6 billion for Baku to acquire Israeli drones, anti-aircraft technology, and missile defense systems.
But this relationship is about so much more than arms. Azerbaijan and Israel cooperate extensively in the realms of politics, economy, energy, and culture.
On the diplomatic front, Israeli leaders have made a number of landmark visits to Azerbaijan, including by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 and 2016; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in 2014; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2012, 2014, and 2015; and President Shimon Peres in 2009. During his most recent visit, Netanyahu praised Muslim-majority Azerbaijan’s warmth toward its 30,000-person Jewish community as “something that we can show the world.”
Baku’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov led a legislative delegation to Israel in 2013, marking the first visit of a high-ranking Azerbaijani official to the Jewish state since Azerbaijan became independent. Another group of Azerbaijani parliamentarians visited Israel in February 2016, and Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov traveled to the Jewish state in September 2017.
In the geopolitical arena, Israel and Azerbaijan have mutual concerns about Iran, which shares a border with Azerbaijan and has backed Baku’s enemy, the Russian client state, Armenia, during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. For Israel, whose top foreign policy priority is to combat the Iranian nuclear threat, Azerbaijan is a crucial ally in the Iranians’ neighborhood.
Israeli companies infuse their technological expertise into Azerbaijan’s market, including the telecommunications firm Bezeq, which operates phone service throughout much of Azerbaijan. Israel buys 40 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan. Israeli-Azerbaijani trade reaches hundreds of millions of dollars annually and has totaled about $4 billion over time.
This story also extends beyond Israel and Azerbaijan on a government-to-government level. It is an unprecedentedly warm relationship between Jews and Muslims, starting with the tolerance practiced by Azerbaijan’s 97-percent-Muslim population. Azerbaijan’s “Mountain Jews” have lived in the Caucasus region since the 5th century A.D. Anti-Semitism is not, and has never been, a problem in Azerbaijan—a stark contrast with the Arab-Muslim states of the Middle East and now, sadly, even the nations of Western Europe.
Tens of thousands of Azerbaijani Jews, many of whom immigrated from the 1970s through the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, live in Israel. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Azerbaijan is expected to triple in 2018 and exceed 50,000, Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan Dan Stav said this month.
“Jewish communities have always lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors. Many of them migrate to Israel and play the role of a bridge between the two nations and the two countries,” Stav said, commenting on the dual inspiration of the Jewish presence in Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani population in Israel.
Azerbaijan’s Eurovision gift to Israel must be understood and recognized within the context of the vibrant, decades-long relationship between Baku and Jerusalem. The Jewish community, Israel advocates, and all proponents of interfaith tolerance should be singing its praises.