Sergei Melkonian
PhD, Research Fellow (APRI Armenia)

Israel and Armenia can be friends again

Sevan Lake, Armenia (photo by Aleksandra Dementeva via Unsplash)
Sevan Lake, Armenia (photo by Aleksandra Dementeva via Unsplash)

Talk to most ordinary Israelis and Armenians, and you sense the great commonality: two democracies, one the world’s only Jewish state and the other an ancient Christian civilization, both striving to carve out a place amid surrounding Muslim landscapes. Indeed, the Armenian Church has long been active in the Holy Land, also seeking good relations with its Jews.

But geopolitical reality is different, because of Israel’s military support for Azerbaijan. My sense is that many Israelis do not fully grasp whom they are allied with and the cost to their country’s reputation.

The alliance is with Ilham Aliyev, a petrodollars-propped dictator who steals from and abuses his own people and who is currently engaged in a series of atrocities against Armenians and Armenia.

The seeming flashpoint is Nagorno Karabakh (which Armenians call Artsakh) – a historically Armenian territory which now finds itself, by whim of Soviet cartographers, inside neighboring Azerbaijan.

After the collapse of communism the Armenians there rebelled and carved out an autonomous entity with a land bridge to Armenia proper – the country that inherited the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

This kind of ethnic dispute will be familiar to Israelis (and Palestinians) – one where narratives clash, who is the aggressor can be tricky to figure out, and sometimes it can seem that no one is fully in the right.

But what is not in dispute is the series of aggressions committed since 2020. That year, Azerbaijan conquering much of the self-governing territory, killing thousands and leaving Artsakh cut off from Armenia – but for a road called the Lachin Corridor.

And this is what is making news today. After several months in which the Azerbaijanis have staged various deadly incursions against Armenia proper, they moved against the 120,000 civilians remaining in the core of Artsakh, cutting off the road and imposing an unconscionable blockade on women, children and the elderly stuck inside. They are now cut off from the  outside world, unable to obtain adequate food, medicine, and other supplies, with energy intermittent.

Despite claims that the road is blocked by Azerbaijani environmental “activists,” the Azerbaijani military and members of its special services are involved. Dozens of states and international organizations have condemned the blockade and have called for the corridor’s reopening. Not only has Israel kept silent, but representatives of the Jewish diaspora are actively participating, including Rabbi Zamer Isayev, chairman of the Azerbaijani-Georgian community of Sephardic Jews and director of the Baku Jewish School.

This outrage, which has gone on for almost two months how, is the tip of an iceberg. With the world distracted by Ukraine, Aliyev is now making threats against Armenia proper, threatening to carve out a corridor through Armenian territory to connect Azerbaijan with a non-contiguous enclave of its own, near Turkey. He appears to discern no contradiction between demanding this so-called “Zangezur corridor” through Armenia while seizing the Lachin corridor and cruelly blockading Artsakh.

Aliyev counts on a number of key allies. One of them is Turkey – the Azeris are a Turkic people, and Aliyev and Turkey’s President Erdogan are birds of an authoritarian feather. And another is Israel.

Why would Israel, a decent country, want to ally itself with so odious a regime, roundly condemned by every human rights groups around the world? Well, we understand Israel has strategic imperatives. It buys oil from Azerbaijan and finds a weapons market there, and it is more than rumored that the Azeris provide a forward base for Israeli operatives peering into Iran.

These are understandable reasons for Israel to conduct an essentially immoral dalliance – a time-dishonored model known euphemistically as realpolitik. But there are limits.

For Aliyev, Israel provides more than some diplomatic cover: it is a source of killer drones that played a major role in the 2020 war, qualitatively changing the military balance in favor of Baku and according it critical dominance in the sky. Indeed, Israel was one of the few states, together with Turkey, that supplied arms and military equipment in general to Azerbaijan during the war. It became an accomplice to aggression.

During the attack on the sovereign territory of Armenia last fall, Azerbaijan again used Israeli drones. During one attack, on September 12-14, Azerbaijan occupied about 150 square kilometers of Armenian territory.

By providing military support to Baku, Israel in a way was probably aiming at Iran, but it hit Armenia.

The main formula for improving relations between  Israel and Armenia, and between the Armenian people and the Jewish people, is to demonstrate that cooperation with a third side need not be directed against each other. In other words, Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan should not so grievously harm Armenia.

A concrete example of this could be the model that the U.S. has tested in Ukraine. Washington and its allies have avoided supplying Ukraine with weapons that can reach Russian territory. The logic is that Ukraine is in a position of defense, not an aggressor, so weapons should be used against Russian forces on Ukrainian territory only. In part, this attaches to an understanding that strikes on Russian territory could lead to a spiral of escalation. So the weapons supplied to Ukraine are for defense only.

A similar approach could be applied to the military and technical cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan. One of the conditions for the supply of modern weaponry could be the condition that it is not used for aggression against Armenia, but for defense – perhaps against Iran. That would be a welcome signal that Israel is not acting against the interests of Armenia.

Another example could be cooperation between Armenia and Israel in health care, for example in field surgery. Given Israel’s advanced experience in this field, as well as the consequences for the Armenian side as a result of the use of Israeli UAVs by Azerbaijan, such a format might be appropriate and even symbolic.

Such cooperation can create opportunities with mutual benefits. A world badly riven might even benefit from a possible example provided by Israel and Armenia.

It helps to know history and to study one another. Not many people in Armenia and Israel know that there were at least 24 Armenians among the “Righteous Among the Nations” who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, some of their names engraved at Yad Vashem. Few know about the 13th-century Jewish cemetery that still exists in the Armenian village of Yeghegis, offering mute testament to ancient close ties.

Such historical echoes might inspire us to do better now.

About the Author
Research Fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia (APRI Armenia) Analyst of Russia's foreign policy, Middle East and South Caucasus
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