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Azerbaijan and Israel: Good Friends Under Siege from Iran

Location: Washington, DC

* Mr. MAFFEI. Madam Speaker, unfortunately, good relations between the State of Israel and Muslim nations are the exception rather than the rule. Everyone knows about the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords, which led to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Israel's neighbor, Jordan, Under King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II, have also developed good ties with Israel.

* More typical than Israeli-Egyptian or Israeli-Jordanian relations in the public's eye is the poisonous relationship between Iran and Israel, a situation fueled by the unrelenting hostility and anti-Semitism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei.

* Iran and its particular brand of Shi'ite Islam seem particularly hostile toward Israel, which is understandably nervous not just about Iran's nuclear ambitions but its strong financial support of Hezbollah and its terrorist activities right in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza.

* Given this situation, it would be surprising to most to learn that one of Israel's strongest friends in the region is Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic, with over a 90 percent Shi'ite population that has adopted a secular style completely opposed to Iran's sectarian government. Azerbaijan has chosen a very different path from that of its southern neighbor, even though there are over 20 million ethnic Azeris living in Iran, including the Grand Ayatollah himself, who is of Azeri descent.

* One possible explanation for Azerbaijan's positive relationship with Israel is the presence of a strong Jewish community in Azerbaijan for over 2,500 years. By all accounts, these Azeri Jews have always been well treated and never subject to the types of discrimination and hostility that confronted Jews, not just in Muslim nations, but the Christian nations of Europe.

* Israel and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in 1993, and Israel opened an Embassy in Baku one year later. Cultural ties also increased at this time. In 1994, a Yeshiva was opened in Baku, and other Jewish schools established years later. A new Jewish synagogue, one of the largest, if not the largest in Europe, opened in Baku in 1993 and currently there are synagogues in several other Azeri cities.

* Prominent Israeli visitors to Baku have included then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1997, President Shimon Peres in June, 2009 and in 2010 Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Israeli trade, diplomatic and cultural missions to Azerbaijan are common place, and Israel is Azerbaijan's fifth largest trading partner, exporting over $3.5 billion per year to Israel, including supplying over a quarter of Israel's oil supply. Israeli exports and direct investments in Azerbaijan are also growing, creating strong economic ties between the two nations.

* On a political front, Israel and Azerbaijan cooperate closely on security issues. Israel supplies significant military equipment to Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan provides Israel with valuable intelligence support, particularly regarding Iran. The two nations also work together to combat the growth of radical Islam.

* The close political, cultural, economic and security relations between Israel and a majority Shi'a but secular Azerbaijan present a model that needs to be encouraged, cultivated and spread throughout the Muslim world. However, this will not happen by itself, and, unless the United States begins to focus more on Azerbaijan's importance in the region, the very existence of this positive Azeri-Israeli relationship could be put in jeopardy.

* I would like to include in the Record a recent article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, published on March 9, 2010, ``The Blooming Friendship Between Azerbaijan and Israel,'' by Anna Zamejc. The article quotes Baku-born former Israeli Knesset member Yosef Shagal on Azerbaijan's friendship with Israel'' ``Today, everyone understands why Iran wants to block the Azerbaijani-Israeli rapprochement by any means ..... It is one of the most important strategic priorities of the Islamic republic. Teheran is perfectly aware of the following: the stronger the connection between Baku and Jerusalem, the more weakened Iran will be.''

* Zamejc goes on to discuss the tremendous pressure Iran is placing on Azerbaijan to cut its ties with Israel, pressure which is becoming more and more difficult to resist without strong support from the West, particularly the United States. The United States has spent too much blood, treasure and diplomatic capital trying to build peaceful relations between Israel and its Muslim neighbors for it to let this great example of success slip away.

* It is important that we pay greater attention to Azerbaijan for economic, strategic and security reasons, and in particular respond affirmatively to Azerbaijan either when it cooperates with the United States in these areas or demonstrates that a Muslim nation both can and should have positive relations with the State of Israel.

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