Herzog to meet Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev in Baku as ties expand

President and health and interior minister set to visit Baku on Tuesday, as Israel continues to build partnership with Iran’s northern neighbor

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog departs Israel for the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 7, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog departs Israel for the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 7, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog will fly to Azerbaijan on Tuesday, the latest step in an ongoing and very public expansion of bilateral ties.

Herzog, who will be traveling with his wife, Michal, will meet Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku at the Zugulba presidential palace.

Aliyev will receive the Herzogs with an honor guard 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 will accompany 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.

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. Judges at the United Nations’ top court ordered Azerbaijan on Tuesday Dec. 7, 2021, to protect all the prisoners it captured during the country’s war last year with neighboring Armenia, to prevent incitement of racial hatred against Armenians and to punish vandalism of Armenian cultural heritage. (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 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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