Narrative Warfare Will Fail to Thwart the Pioneering Israel-Azerbaijan Relationship

December 29, 2020

3 min read

Against the backdrop of a year largely characterized by the coronavirus pandemic’s darkness and despair, one uplifting storyline has been the unprecedented progress toward peace in the Middle East. Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020 alone represent double the amount of comparable peace deals between the Jewish state and Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) during the previous 40 years combined.

The immense strategic, diplomatic, economic, and cultural promise associated with the rising acceptance of Israel in the Muslim world is not without precedent. Israel and the Muslim-majority nation of Azerbaijan have established a paradigm for Jewish-Muslim relations through their flourishing ties on all of those fronts since 1992.

Now, Azerbaijan and Israel have an opportunity to further strengthen their ties after Azerbaijan’s victory in its recent six-week war with Armenia. Despite the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel is looking at a more stable outlook than ever in a region that increasingly recognizes its existence. Azerbaijan is also notably strengthened after regaining control of territories in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that were occupied by Armenia for three decades.

Yet a chorus of Armenians and their supporters are vying to undermine Israel-Azerbaijan relations by promoting a disingenuous narrative about the recent war, accusing Israel of choosing realpolitik over morality by selling arms to Azerbaijan and by extension, backing Turkey’s attempt at a “second Armenian genocide.” These wild theories assert that Jerusalem has chosen the wrong side in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, aligning with an “Islamist” campaign to eliminate the region’s Christian heritage. Even after the war, media commentators continue to reinforce the unsubstantiated claim that “Syrian mercenaries” fought against Armenia.

Azerbaijan, a pioneer in developing Muslim relations with Jews and Israel, belongs nowhere near any conversation about Islamism or religious warfare. Although its population is more than 90-percent Muslim, Azerbaijan has been documented by Gallup as one of the world’s most secular countries, a finding rarely associated with Muslim-majority states. Pope Francis has praised the religious tolerance in Azerbaijan as a paradigm for a world divided by extremism.

Further, the rationale behind pairing Armenian Christians and Israeli Jews in the same ideological camp is highly flawed. Rather, it is Azerbaijanis and Israelis as well as Armenians and Palestinians who closely share narratives, from the past to the present.

By signing a surrender document on November 10, Armenia ceded control of occupied territories to Azerbaijan. But Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh proceeded to carry out an “ecological terror” campaign, torching their homes ahead of the territory’s handover to Azerbaijan. In 2005, amid Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, there were no reports of Jews burning their departed homes. Rather, Palestinians rushing into the area burned synagogues.

The Gaza disengagement also set the stage for the enclave’s transformation into a terror state run by Hamas and a launching pad for rocket attacks against southern Israel. Similar concerns could arise in Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenian guerilla groups continue to refuse to leave the territory. During the recent war, Armenians reportedly discussed the possibility of reviving the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), a terrorist group that formerly cooperated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire was breached on December 11, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the incident as a “terrorist attack” committed by “either Armenian gunmen or what is left of the Armenian Army” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the six-week war, Armenian tactics such as using banned cluster munitions and carrying out indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians mirror Palestinian warfare. An Armenian Scud missile attack which killed 13 people in a residential neighborhood in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, also eerily conjured images of Iraqi Scud missile strikes during the Gulf War. Following the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian columnist went as far as suggesting the use of a nuclear bomb against Azerbaijan, radical rhetoric which resembles Iran’s threats to wipe Israel off the map.

Armenian parallels with Israel’s adversaries are rooted even deeper from a historical perspective. By routinely rejecting generous U.S.-brokered peace proposals, the Palestinians famously “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Armenia, too, for years rejected the principles of the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by the U.S., Russia, and France) for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Now, in the aftermath of the war, Azerbaijan faces fantastical accusations that it plans a “cultural genocide” against Christian monuments and heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, Azerbaijan has a long history of protecting Christian heritage, including by restoring Baku’s Armenian cathedral. Israel, a safe haven for Christians in a Middle East region where they are widely persecuted, is also regularly subjected to accusations that its military control of the West Bank threatens Christian holy sites.

But in defiance of this narrative warfare, Israel and Azerbaijan have emerged as economically thriving nations with rich multicultural landscapes, while Armenia exhibits the characteristics of a failed state and the Palestinians have failed to attain a state. In 2021, the same narrative is bound to persist and by consequence, Israeli-Azerbaijani relations are poised to keep growing.

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