In May, while part of a Knesset delegation to Azerbaijan, I attended a children’s recital at the Or Avner school in Baku. The children performed Hebrew songs that I remembered my own Israeli-born children singing.
The fact that these young Jews were learning Hebrew in a former Soviet republic was moving in itself, but also symbolised the astonishing changes taking place in Israeli-Azeri relations.
The goal of my visit to Azerbaijan was to advance the close commercial ties between our two countries. Azerbaijan is particularly receptive to Israeli overtures. It gains much from Israel’s technological and security know-how and investment.
Israel is the happy recipient of Azeri oil — a full one-third of Israeli oil imports come from Azerbaijan. When most of the world’s oil deposits are in the hands of countries hostile to Israel, finding a strong ally in an oil-rich country affords the Jewish state a high degree of energy security.
The next item on my itinerary after the Or Avner school visit was a meeting with the Azerbaijan-Israel parliamentary friendship group. We discussed working together on economic projects — especially increasing tourism between our two countries. Today, there is only one weekly flight from Israel to Azerbaijan. That service should be tripled, at least.
The special emphasis of our meeting was the inclusion of Azeri Jews in these projects. Israel would like to see Azeri Jews benefiting economically from the warm relations we have with their government. Azeri MPs were keen to show us that local Jews enjoyed freedom of religion. MP Yevda Abramov boasted that, in the past five years, two synagogues were built there.
Israel’s exports to Azerbaijan amount to $5 billion annually. It is a majority Muslim country that borders Iran and yet embraces Israel as its ticket to success.
The benefits Azerbaijan reaps from its co-operation with Israel range from security to agriculture, to telecoms and even ice cream. Israel could not ask for better publicity in a region threatened by Islamic radicalisation.
The future is also bright for the Or Avner students. Their freedom to sing in Hebrew and develop an informed love of Judaism is a measure of Azerbaijan’s commitment to Israel and continued ability to withstand Iranian pressure. Israel is thankful for both.