"The scorched earth and smashed tombstones in Karabakh will stick upon our memory forever"
    Caliber.Az interview with Alexander Gur-Aryeh

    INTERVIEWS  24 February 2023 - 11:04

    Vadim Mansurov

    Cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel is undoubtedly on the rise now, at a stage of new ties and opportunities. Unfortunately, all this is happening in difficult times: Iran and Armenia are escalating the situation in the region, and the Russian-Ukrainian war is undermining world security.

    What are the mutual interests and objectives of cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan under such circumstances? Political observer of the Israeli channel ITON.TV Alexander Gur-Aryeh shared his opinion about it in an interview with Caliber.Az.

    - What do you think are the main features of the current Israeli-Azerbaijani relations? What dynamics have they gained due to a series of events - the opening of the Azerbaijan Embassy in Israel, and the ratcheting up of aggressive rhetoric of Iran against Baku?

    - Israeli-Azerbaijani relations have a long history and have always developed in an upward direction. Lately, the situation in our region (I mean not only the Middle East, but also the South Caucasus) has been sharply strained, and in many respects, it is linked with Iran's growing ambitions to build up its military might, and its plans to acquire nuclear weapons technology. A nuclear Iran is dangerous not only for Israel but also for all neighboring countries in the region, including the Sunni Arab states that joined the Abrahamic Agreement with Israel. Such an Iran is no less dangerous for Azerbaijan. Therefore, the consolidation of efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons takes on special significance in Israel's relations with Azerbaijan among others.

    It must also be said that today there is a noticeable warming between Israel and Türkiye, which means that the alliance between Türkiye, Azerbaijan, and the "Abrahamic agreement" - the Sunni Arab states - on the one hand, and Israel on the other, is strengthening not only politically, but also militarily.

    And no one is hiding the fact that the new partnership is aimed not only at the economic development of the region but also at confronting a nuclear-armed Iran. I think this is necessary if only because the IAEA recently reported that Iran has increased its uranium enrichment level and has almost reached the critical point at which the first nuclear bomb subsequently dropped on Hiroshima was created. In other words, this is an increasingly aggravating and increasingly dangerous situation.

    The turning point in Iran's relations with leading Western countries was Tehran's defection to Moscow in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Iran first began to supply Russia with drones, and now there is information that Iranian medium-range missiles are being supplied there.

    And if before the US and Europe insisted on continuing negotiations with Iran and hoped to renew the nuclear deal, now it has become clear to everyone that Iran is an axis of evil. Understandably, the rhetoric has changed accordingly. There is a small hope that an agreement with Iran can be reached peacefully, but on the whole, everyone is preparing for the fact that the problem will have to be solved by force.

    Israel is preparing for this very carefully, and in this preparation, it is counting on the support of the Sunni Arab states, which are members of the "Abrahamic agreement". To a large extent, Tel Aviv is also counting on the support of Azerbaijan, not to mention Türkiye - Ankara is not interested in having a nuclear-armed Iran either.

    And going back in time... Israel had a number of difficult years with Türkiye. We used to have a wonderful military partnership - Israel was involved in re-equipping Türkiye's military equipment: it was re-tooling Turkish tanks and planes, replacing electronics. Now it is coming back, there was a visit of our President to Türkiye, his meeting with Erdogan. We are trying to bring the level of cooperation back to at least preconflict times. Moreover, I will note that even at the height of the "winter" in our relations with Türkiye, trade, and economic relations were not interrupted, trade turnover remained high and practically did not decrease. This is the first indication that the conflict was illusory. Because business reacts most strongly to all political conflicts. This is why we now, in cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, in this triangle of relations - powerful both militarily and economically - can successfully confront Iran's ambitions. And if we consider the support of the Sunni Arab states in the Abrahamic agreement, it may be the real power that can stop a nuclear Iran. Excuse me, but I don't believe that Europe will somehow get involved in this conflict and try to take some kind of forceful action against Iran - Europe will only make statements and express concerns. Of course, the United States may intervene, but in reality, the most potential force in the region is the Türkiye-Israel-Azerbaijan triangle, supported by the neighbouring countries of the Abrahamic agreement: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other Middle Eastern countries.

    - You have visited the liberated territories of Azerbaijan and witnessed the demining of the territories. What was your impression after your visit to Karabakh?

    - In August 2021, I had the opportunity to visit Azerbaijan, the liberated territories, with a group of Israeli journalists. We visited Shusha and Aghdam. As we entered the territory, passing through numerous checkpoints and inspections, I had the feeling that I was present as a character in Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. Where you get into some mystical-space territory with an extreme level of danger: one step to the right, one step to the left - everything is booby-trapped. I remember how they explained to us that Azerbaijan occupies one of the first places in the world in terms of the area of minefields.

    I was generally aware of the events because I had always been interested in the situation in Karabakh during the various years of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, but for some reason, I thought that the Armenians, when they conquered the territories of Azerbaijan, started to establish some kind of life there, do construction, cultivate the land, and so on. So if you wanted to conquer other people's territories, you were probably going to do something with them.

    And the huge blow for me, for all our delegation, was the obviousness that for thirty years these lands had been completely dead: the remains of burnt-out cars, houses with chimneys left - everything else was ruined and looted, trenches, dugouts and not even a hint of attempts to somehow arrange life, to build something, to try to improve something. It was just astounding, and automatically raised a question - why were you capturing everything, if there was no intention to even develop these lands?

    We all know very well that the Armenian diaspora in the US and Europe allocated large funds for the development of these territories, and a big embarrassment arose when journalists appeared here after the 44-day war, and images and videos from the liberated areas appeared on the web. And then those sponsors, those donors were shocked and asked - where is our money? And all the money was simply stolen.

    But when it comes to the strongest impression of the trip (an opinion shared by all my colleague friends who were there), it was when I visited the Azerbaijani cemetery in Aghdam. Holes had been made in the headstones of the graves, I think it is clear why - to reach the skulls and extract the gold teeth from them. It was utterly shocking, and we stood there unable to catch our breath. It was the most barbaric thing I had ever seen in my life and I will never forget it. We showed this cemetery in the film we made on that trip. And that was definitely the worst impression of what we saw.

    But there were also good, positive impressions. There was a surprisingly warm attitude of the Azerbaijanis towards our group when they found out that we were from Israel. Many of them immediately hugged us, and this was the period of the coronavirus - close contact was forbidden. But here we had to break all the bans. I also remember Israeli flags everywhere: in the districts, in Baku - it was strong.

    The second thing that surprised us incredibly was a huge, colossal construction - roads, a huge airport... I remember when we arrived at the construction site and were told that the airport would accept heavy liners, we looked at each other and grinned: well, what can you do, guys are fantasizing. Imagine our surprise three months later, when already in Israel we saw that everything had been completed within that period and the planes were already landing at the airport. It was hard to believe.

    But not only that: construction was everywhere, it was breathtaking and it was quite clear that Azerbaijan had a vested interest in ensuring that life on this land was reborn in full as soon as possible. The huge areas of minefields, of course, hindered this. The people who left Karabakh as children, or were born when their refugee parents settled in other cities, were shocked. So all of them kept saying one thing: "We want to go back, we must go back". It is fascinating.

    Israel is coming out with a big package of proposals to revive these territories, and it is quite obvious that the first thing to do is to develop agriculture and irrigation of the land there. Israel has very good developments in this direction. And here cooperation between our country and Azerbaijan is developing, a huge field of activity is opening up, huge areas and a huge number of people have to return there... And these cities, which are being built there, will be the cities of the future.

    - How do you assess the present policy of Armenia, which is still inclined towards revanchism and calls for a new war?

    - It seems to me that it is now a unique chance to resolve this conflict, to reach peaceful agreements on all issues. I will explain why: when Russia was behind Armenia, literally and figuratively, including the Russian military base stationed in the country, Armenia was not interested in any agreements, because it was completely dependent on Moscow. Yes, it is still dependent on Russia, but the situation is changing. In view of Russia's war with Ukraine, when support with both military equipment and Russian finances has been reduced to a minimum, there is an understanding that Armenia will have no one to rely on in the event of a theoretical resumption of hostilities with Azerbaijan. Russia does not have enough tanks for its war and simply does not care about Armenia. However, Macron is now adding fuel to the fire: it is clear that he is under pressure from the Armenian lobby voters in France. And he even managed to declare at the Munich conference in the behind-the-scenes panel discussions that "France is Armenia's best friend; Armenia can count on any help from France" and so on. It is clear that these are beautiful words, but it gives an excuse for Armenia to begin to show its temper and to be stubborn.

    Therefore, it seems to me that now is the time to liberate Karabakh from the remnants of the illegal armed groups.

    In my opinion, however, the meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan on the sidelines of Munich does give some chance for some kind of advancement: we understand that it is still very far from any agreement, even preliminary, but any meeting between the parties, especially between the leaders of the countries, can really help, open the way for further negotiations. And I hope that will happen.


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