- - Thursday, April 25, 2013

With Syria mired in open revolt, several other Middle Eastern and North African countries still reeling from the Arab Spring, and Iran at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear program, it was astounding to hear Israel’s president refer to a Muslim country this week not as a problem but as part of the solution.

Yet there was Shimon Perez in Jerusalem on Monday praising Azerbaijan for taking “a clear stand” against war and terrorism and for making the world a bit more safe and predictable.

The occasion was a visit to Israel by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, accompanied by a large delegation of Azerbaijani Jews, including a Jewish member of the parliament. While Mr. Mammadyarov’s trip this week was historic — it marked the first visit to Israel by an Azerbaijani foreign minister — the rhetoric was not. Azerbaijan’s long-standing friendship with Israel — and its support for the two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — have been policy for years. Israel has even asked Azerbaijan to help broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Unbeknownst to many, Azerbaijan, a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population that sits on the United Nations Security Council, has had a close relationship with Israel since the beginning of its independence from the Soviet Union a generation ago. Indeed, it might surprise many to know that Azerbaijan, with a Shiite-majority population and a shared border with Iran, supplies some 40 percent of Israel’s oil. A subsidiary of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic is aiding Israel’s quest for energy security by drilling off the Israeli coast in the Mediterranean. The countries also have a close partnership in the defense sector.

During a period when old grudges and prejudices color nearly every global event, Mr. Mammadyarov’s visit to Israel is a hopeful sign. It’s refreshing when two countries with diverse cultural backgrounds make common cause and become friends, rather than hew to tired stereotypes that seem to define every facet of the modern world order.

The strategic relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel is held together by a human story. Azerbaijan is home to a thriving Jewish community of about 30,000, which has lived there in peace for at least 2,000 years. When, over the centuries, Jews in the surrounding regions found themselves persecuted, they found Azerbaijan a haven. During World War II, many European Jews escaping Nazi persecutions found shelter in Azerbaijan.

Over the years since independence, Azerbaijan also has proved to be a staunch and reliable ally of the United States and Europe. The Caspian region is increasingly important to the West as the strategic juncture between the Middle East and Central Asia, and Baku has become a strong regional partner at this critical intersection.

My country has long been dedicated to promoting stability and security in its neighborhood. Azerbaijan has played a vital role in supporting the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and has been providing valuable overflight, refueling and landing rights to 40 percent of the material that coalition forces use. Azerbaijan has suffered repeatedly from terrorism. Therefore, we clearly understand the need to counter extremism in whatever form it may exist.

It is not easy to pursue an independent path, especially for a young country in a complex and challenging region. Attempts to divert us from this path abound, but they all have failed. Azerbaijan’s resolve to preserve and strengthen its hard-won freedom and independence has never been stronger.

Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s consul general to the Western United States.

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