'No one is selling out values or harming core principles'

Before flying to Baku, Herzog strikes optimistic note on judicial reform talks

President to meet Azerbaijani leader, as Israel continues to build partnership with Iran’s northern neighbor

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog board their flight to Baku, Azerbaijan, May 30, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog board their flight to Baku, Azerbaijan, May 30, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Before taking off for Baku on Tuesday for his meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, President Isaac Herzog said that talks over Israeli judicial reform would continue at his residence in Jerusalem, and that compromise was still possible.

“This demands effort, goodwill, leadership,” he said before boarding his flight, “and I recommend ignoring background noise, to think about the strategic goal, which is, in the end, the welfare of Israel.

“No one is selling out values,” the president continued in front of the cameras, “no one is harming core principles, but on the other hand, it is good and desirable to debate the boundaries of the different branches in Israel.”

Herzog’s visit is the latest step in an ongoing and very public expansion of bilateral ties with Azerbaijan.

He also spoke about the central Asian nation’s proximity to Iran, Israel’s arch-nemesis.

“Iran is a destabilizing influence in the region that is working continuously to act against Israel and against the alliance of peace and security that is developing in the region, and I will certainly discuss this,” said the president.

President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal are greeted at the airport in Baku by Jewish schoolchildren from the Chabad Or Avner school, May 30, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO).

Herzog, who is traveling with his wife, Michal, was greeted at the airport by Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister, deputy foreign minister, and the ambassadors from both countries.

They were joined by 30 Jewish schoolchildren from the Chabad Or Avner school in Baku.

Aliyev will receive the Herzogs with an honor guard at the Zugulba presidential palace that will play Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva.”

The two presidents will then conduct a working meeting, followed by a state lunch along with the first ladies.

Herzog is also scheduled to participate in a ceremony along with the local Jewish community celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday before heading home on Wednesday.

Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel from the Shas party accompanied Herzog on the visit, and will meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Teymur Musayev.

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel arrives the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Arbel and Musayev will discuss cooperation on training doctors, digital health, and emergency preparedness, according to Herzog’s office. They will also sign an agreement on healthcare cooperation.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and close friend of Aliyev, also flew to Baku for the visit.

Azerbaijan, a Shiite-majority country closely allied with Turkey, has seen its partnership with Israel flourish in the wake of Israeli support for the country during its 2020 conflict with Armenia.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met Aliyev in Baku in April. According to Cohen’s statement after the meeting, the two spoke about “our shared strategic regional challenges, especially regional security and the fight against terrorism.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, April 19, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

It is an open secret that two of the pillars of the relationship are Azerbaijan’s location on Iran’s northern border and the fact that Israel buys over 30 percent of its oil from Baku.

Azerbaijan opened its embassy in Tel Aviv in March.

Foreign reports have indicated that Azerbaijan likely allows Israel to use bases on its soil to launch reconnaissance flights over Iran and to send intelligence operatives into the country to disrupt its nuclear program. In case Israel does decide to carry out airstrikes on Iranian reactors and plants, access to Azerbaijani bases would make that task far more feasible.

Talks to reinstate a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers restarted in April 2021 but have been stalled since last year and Tehran has forged ahead with its nuclear ambitions, prompting renewed threats of an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.

Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s leading arms suppliers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided 69% of Baku’s major arms imports in 2016-2020, accounting for 17% of Jerusalem’s arms exports over that period.

FILE – Ethnic Armenian soldiers walk along the road near the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/File)

Israel stepped up its weapons shipments to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan emerged victorious in that six-week war with Armenia, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 soldiers and resulted in Baku regaining control over disputed territories.

Tensions with Iran spiked in the aftermath of the war, with Iran carrying out major military exercises on Azerbaijan’s border and escalating its rhetoric against its neighbor. Iran, home to millions of ethnic Azeris, has long accused its smaller northern neighbor of fueling separatist sentiment on its territory.

Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azeri independence in 1991. It has had an embassy in Baku since 1992.

Illustrative: Then-defense minister Benny Gantz, on a state visit to Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022. (Nicole Laskavi/MOD)

In October, then-defense minister Benny Gantz made an official visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with his counterpart Zakir Hasanov, and President Aliyev.

In December, Azerbaijan announced the appointment of its first-ever ambassador to Israel, less than two months after approving the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv.

At the time, Deputy Foreign Minister Azerbaijan Fariz Rzayev said that following his country’s decision to open an embassy in Israel, “the sky is the limit” for the two countries’ bilateral ties.

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