BAKU, Azerbaijan — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday hailed Israel’s multi-billion dollar military cooperation with Azerbaijan as a positive example of Muslim-Jewish coexistence.
“Israel is the Jewish state and Azerbaijan is a Muslim state with a large Muslim majority,” Netanyahu said after meeting with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. “Here we have an example of Muslims and Jews working together to promise a better future for both of us.”
A secular state that has long had warm relations with Israel, the overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s main trading partners, buying weapons systems and providing the Jewish state with the lion’s share of its oil.
“The world sees so much intolerance and darkness, this is an example of how the Muslim-Jewish relationship can and should be everywhere,” Netanyahu said on the first leg of his historic two-day visit to Muslim-majority countries in bid to further develop security, economic, and diplomatic ties.
Netanyahu in his remarks also noted the growing cooperation between the two countries in the energy, agriculture, IT and education sectors.
At the press conference, Aliyev said that Baku has purchased nearly $5 billion in Israeli weapons over the years.
“We actively cooperate in the area of defense industries. This cooperation has lasted for many years already,” Aliyev told Israeli and Azerbaijani reporters at Baku’s Zagulba Palace.
“To give you one figure to illustrate how broad this cooperation is, so far the contracts between Azerbaijani and Israeli companies with respect to purchasing of defense equipment is close to $5 billion. To be more precise, $4.85 billion.”
Though most of the military contracts have already been executed, Aliyev said there was room for increased partnerships with Israel.
Two Israeli officials said they were surprised that Azerbaijan chose to reveal exact figures detailing its defense deals with Israel.
Earlier this year, Armenian forces claimed Baku deployed Israeli-made kamikaze drones in a battle against them in the ongoing fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
According to reports, Baku is interested in acquiring Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, a deal that was likely to be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit.
“We’re very satisfied with the level of this cooperation,” Aliyev told reporters.
Nearly 98 percent of Azerbaijan’s 10 million inhabitants are Muslim, the vast majority of them Shiites, along with a tiny, 20,000-member Jewish minority.
Netanyahu was to later Tuesday lay a wreath at Şəhidlər Xiyabanı, or Martyrs Lane, a memorial dedicated to Azeris killed by the Soviets during the 1990 January Massacre and the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994. He also planned to visit the Ohr Avner Jewish educational complex, run by the Chabad movement, where he was scheduled to meet with representatives of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu and his delegation will travel to Kazakhstan for talks with officials interested in Israeli counterterrorism know-how and in doing business with Israel’s high-tech sector, a means of diversifying its economy, which is currently dominated by exports of hydrocarbons.