Challenges in Azerbaijani-Israeli Strategic Relationship After October 7

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 90

(Source: President of Azerbaijan)

Executive Summary:

  • Azerbaijan has taken a more conservative stance on the war in Gaza, maintaining relations with Israel, on the one hand, and avoiding declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, on the other.
  • Baku’s position represents a break from the responses of Türkiye, Pakistan, and many other countries in the surrounding region.
  • As Israel is the main supplier of Azerbaijan’s advanced weapon systems, Baku hopes to maintain economic and especially military cooperation with Tel Aviv to solidify its position in the South Caucasus.

On June 2, members of the group “A Thousand Youth for Palestine” attacked the office buildings of the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) in Istanbul, throwing red paint on the headquarters’ entrance (Duvar, June 2). They demanded that SOCAR cease selling oil to Israel via the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhun pipeline. The group has called for cutting all ties with Israel due to its hostilities in Gaza following the Hamas attack on October 7. The bloody war between Israel and Hamas has put Baku in a difficult situation as a Shia-majority Muslim country with strategic ties to Tel Aviv. Just six months before the attack, Azerbaijan had opened its embassy in Tel Aviv on March 29, 2023 (see EDM, November 30, 2022; The Times of Israel, March 29, 2023). In addition, Baku opened a representative office in Ramallah, the seat of power for the Palestinian Authority (Qatar News Agency, March 30, 2023). Baku took these steps at a time when two close partners, Türkiye and Israel, had begun normalizing relations after years of tension (The Jerusalem Post, September 23, 2023). The Hamas attack and subsequent fighting changed that balance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Israel as a “terror state” committing war crimes and denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “tyrant” no different from Adolf Hitler (Al Jazeera, November 15, 2023). Against this backdrop, Baku has faced multiple challenges in trying to strike a balance between maintaining relations with the Islamic world and continuing cooperation with Israel since October 7.

Baku has taken a more conservative position on the war in Gaza. On the one hand, unlike most Islamic countries, Azerbaijan has refused to condemn Israel. On the other hand, unlike most Western countries, Baku has avoided declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, though it did condemn the October 7 attack. In this regard, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did not participate in the extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Riyadh on November 12, 2023. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov attended in Aliyev’s place (Turkic World, October 18, 2023). At the Organization of Turkic States summit in Kazakhstan on November 3, the Azerbaijani president avoided condemning either side and merely expressed general “concern over the ongoing conflict” (Eurasianet, November 9, 2023). 

Baku, nevertheless, seeks to maintain its position in the Islamic world. For three decades, Azerbaijan continuously sought the support of Arab and Islamic countries in the Karabakh conflict. To drum up support, Azerbaijan partnered with Pakistan and presented the status of the two regions of Karabakh and Kashmir in the OIC as occupied by two non-Muslim countries, India and Armenia (Arab News, October 10, 2020; Dawn, October 20, 2020). 

Although Azerbaijan has reclaimed Karabakh, Baku still needs to stabilize its new position in the South Caucasus and maintain ties to the Islamic world. Symbolically, in 2009, Baku and, in 2018, the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhchivan were declared as cultural capitals of the Islamic world. During the 12th Conference of Ministers of Culture in the Islamic World, Shusha was declared the cultural capital for 2024 (APA, September 25, 2023). Azerbaijan clearly does not want to destroy its image in the Islamic and Arab world by openly supporting Israel as its strategic partner, though Baku hopes to maintain some ties with Tel Aviv.

Regarding Hamas, Baku does not forget that the group congratulated Azerbaijan on its victory in the Second Karabakh War. In November 2020, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said, “We congratulate Azerbaijan for its victory in the battles and regaining the occupied territory” (Anadolu Agency, November 10, 2020). Baku, nevertheless, has refused any direct communication with Hamas. Türkiye asserts that Hamas is a political party and not a terrorist organization and is among the countries that have close relations with the group. This presents an important break between Ankara and Baku. While the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tel Aviv, Mukhtar Mammadov, sharply condemned the Hamas attacks on October 7, Baku has avoided declaring Hamas a terrorist organization (Turan, October 9, 2023).

Another important difference is the lack of popular protests against Israel in Azerbaijan. In recent months, Türkiye, other Islamic and Arab countries, as well as European and American universities, have seen relatively large protests against Israel and in support of Hamas (Al Jazeera, February 17; Al-Monitor, May 28). Such public protests have not been observed in Azerbaijan. The Islamic currents in Azerbaijan likely have strong sympathies for Palestine, but Baku’s efforts to maintain strategic relations with Tel Aviv have prevented these elements from openly protesting against Israel. Baku is worried that the war in Gaza may provoke more radical Islamic sentiments and threaten the secular political structure of Azerbaijan (Eurasianet, November 9, 2023).

Overall, Baku hopes to maintain close economic and military relations with Israel. Presently, Azerbaijan supplies approximately 40 percent of Israel’s oil, and Tel Aviv is the main supplier of Baku’s arms, ranging from high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles to ballistic missiles (Cohen, November 13, 2023). This position demonstrates another break with Islamic and Arab countries. Following October 7, Azerbaijan, along with Türkiye, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, were under enormous pressure to reduce or stop economic and commercial cooperation with Israel. Ankara declared it would halt exports to Israel for the duration of the war, citing a “worsening humanitarian tragedy” in the Palestinian territories. In response, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Israel would abolish its free-trade agreement with Türkiye and impose a 100-percent tariff on Turkish imports (The Times of Israel, May 18). These tensions highlight another rift between Azerbaijan’s two close partners, as Baku hopes to balance between both partners.

Azerbaijan has been more vocal on the war in Gaza of late. During a joint press conference with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on June 8, Aliyev emphasized, “Azerbaijan’s attitude is clear. An independent Palestinian state should be established and East Jerusalem should be its capital. The tragedy in Gaza must end as soon as possible, the war must be stopped and all problems must be resolved through negotiations” (Anadolu Agency, June, 8). Aliyev’s words highlight Baku’s ongoing efforts to balance relations with Israel and its position in the Islamic and Arab world.

The October 7 Hamas attack and subsequent war have put Azerbaijan in a difficult and contradictory situation. On the one hand, Baku hopes to maintain strategic relations with Israel. On the other hand, it does not want to disrupt relations with Türkiye and Pakistan and hopes to preserve its prestige in the Islamic and Arab world. Baku is also very cautious about the mounting confrontation between Iran and Israel. Tehran has always viewed the military, intelligence, and security cooperation between Baku and Tel Aviv with suspicion (see EDM, April 18, May 8, 2023). Under the present circumstances, maintaining strategic relations with Israel while nurturing neighborly relations with Iran has become another important challenge for Baku after October 7. Despite these challenges, relations between Azerbaijan and Israel continue to develop, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog saying he will participate in the 29th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change to be held in Baku in November (, May 27).