BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, THE AMBASSADOR OF ISRAEL TO AZERBAIJAN, DAN STAV, TOLD AZERI OBSERVER ABOUT THE LONG HISTORY OF RELATIONS BETWEEN THE AZERBAIJANI AND JEWISH COMMUNITIES, PROSPECTS OF COOPERATION IN ENERGY, TOURISM, AGRICULTURE, AND EDUCATION, AS WELL AS THE TOP MUST-SEE TOURISTS DESTINATIONS IN AZERBAIJAN AND ISRAEL.
Question: This year Israel is celebrating 70 years of independence. What achievements have been made during this period and what are the plans for the future?
Answer: During the last 70 years Israel has achieved a lot. If you look at the situation in 1948 when the founding fathers of the state declared independence, the 600,000 Jewish people living there were surrounded by hostile neighbors. The territory was invaded by five Arab armies and local goons taking Jewish settlements with one clear-cut goal – to liquidate the Jewish presence in this part of the Middle East. Now, you can see a country with a population of almost 9 million people, a multicultural society with a sizable minority, where everybody lives in an absolute democracy. You can see very heated, and sometimes overheated, debates in the parliament, there is absolute freedom of the press, and side by side we have been able to build a very flourishing economy and achieve a very low rate of unemployment.
Israel is one of the most advanced countries when it comes to high tech and innovations in agriculture. The Jewish people who lived away from cultivating the land but still had a desire to develop and change our land were able to build a very successful and innovative agriculture. They were able to create solutions for economical water use and the cultivation of new types of crops. Plus, everything was achieved within a relatively short period of time.
I believe that the jewel in the crown of Israel’s achievements are the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. I feel this way because one of the greatest desires of the founding fathers, as it was written in our declaration of independence, was to have peace with our neighbors and to develop the Middle East together for the betterment of all people living there. The peace agreements show that the desire of Israel for peace can bring peace if the other side has courage and vision. I hope to further expand the peace agreements because we have a lot to offer to the region to ensure a better, stable, and peaceful Middle East.
Q.: Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but despite this fact, we have very good relations with Israel. Could you please tell us about these relations? How do you assess the current state of our bilateral relations?
A.: The relations between Israel and Azerbaijan did not start in 1991 when Azerbaijan declared its independence. The Jewish community has been living here for time immemorial. It is mentioned in the Bible that the prophet Ezra sent emissaries to different Jewish communities in the 6th century before Christ and among them was the Caspian community, indicating what is now known as Azerbaijan. It might be the Jewish community that had been living together here with the ancient Caspian people. Some argue that they came even earlier. The history of the Jewish existence in Azerbaijan is very long and rich, and the Jewish people have been part and parcel of the society irrespective of what was the religion of the inhabitants of the region – whether they were Zoroastrians, later Christians, or later Muslims. They have not only been tolerated, but they were accepted, and that is a big difference. This is a very important component of the relations. You rightly mentioned that a lion share of Azerbaijan’s population are Muslims, but it does not matter whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian because everyone is judged by their own merit. And this, I think, is a great thing about Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an alternative model of what we see in relations within the Middle East between Shia and Sunni. Here they pray in the same mosque, there they kill each other in the same country. So, what Azerbaijan stands for, is of crucial importance to us.
In addition, our relations have a lot of strategic components, such as defense ties. Israel gets a considerable part of its oil from Azerbaijan, and the location of Azerbaijan as a transportation hub may be a very interesting opportunity for Israel for export and import. Add to this the determination of the Azerbaijani government to diversify the economy, putting more emphasis on the non-energy sector, such as agriculture and tourism. Israel, as a country that has state-of-the-art technologies in agriculture, can be a very important partner here. The Azerbaijani government takes a lot of efforts to make the investment climate friendlier towards foreign investors and therefore Israel’s interest is growing in this regard. In the last two years, more and more Israeli companies are coming to Azerbaijan and there is also a lot of interest in investing here in agriculture. We can learn a lot from Azerbaijan on everything that is related to energy. You have accumulated a lot of experience in this sphere. We can learn from you on how to run a Sovereign fund that accumulates funds that we get from gas, how to develop offshore fields, and we hope that Azerbaijani companies, like Caspian Drilling Company(CDC), will join the exploration of certain blocks in the offshore areas in Israel. You also have a very famous academy in the energy sector and we can have beneficial cooperation in this regard. It is a healthy mix of all types of components of bilateral relations. There is also a strategic cooperation that benefits both sides and one of the most important things is that Azerbaijan offers a genuine positive alternative to what we see in the extended Middle East, which is of crucial importance.
Q.: Let’s talk about the economic sphere. Both Azerbaijan and Israel are planning gas supplies to Europe. Do you see Azerbaijan as a competitor in the European gas market?
A.: The European market is very lucrative when it comes to energy. I believe the demand for gas in Europe is stable and is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. We are following with great interest what Azerbaijan has been doing in building the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) as part of the Southern Gas Corridor. I think it is a very welcome initiative, and it will enable us to diversify the sources of energy to Europe. I do not see Azerbaijan as a direct competitor and my understanding is that at least for the coming decade, Azerbaijan is also looking for transportation of more gas to TANAP in order to lower the prices since the Azerbaijani fields, at the moment, cannot provide an adequate amount of gas. In this regard, both countries could transport our gas to Europe through TANAP and it would reduce the cost of transportation, so both sides would benefit. But, this is only one option. The other options are also discussed regarding the export of gas from Israel.
Q.: So, you do you see TANAP as the best option for supplies of Israeli gas to Europe? Do you think that it can happen in the near future?
A.: When you look at the economic considerations about the need to find supplementary additions of gas, I think the answer is yes. But, like many things in the Middle East, there are a lot of other calculations. If you take for granted the idea that the gas companies that are producing gas from offshore rigs in Israel want to export gas, the most obvious markets, aside from the Palestinian and Jordanian markets, which are relatively small, are the European and Turkish markets. They will have to invest in infrastructure if they want to transport gas to Europe. The alternative way, if we do it through Greece, through liquified natural gas(LNG), etc. are very costly. The question becomes finding the most economical option that will not run into rough waters because of political considerations.
Regarding the time, it is very hard to say. There is a saying in the Bible that since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children. I do hope that it will materialize because it is a great opportunity. Every deal that is a win-win for everyone should be implemented. But, as I said before, there are many other calculations that are not related directly to the economy. The extended Middle East is a very complex area with a lot of political considerations from all sides. So, it remains to be seen how it can be materialized.
Q.: You touched upon cooperation in the agricultural sphere. Azerbaijan sees agriculture as the main pillar for economic diversification. Could Israel’s experience in this sphere help Azerbaijan meet this goal?
A.: There are a number of options for cooperation that we are trying to promote. The first thing that we try to do at the government level is to participate in the human capacity building in the field of agriculture. The human capacity building is very important because agronomists are the most important component if you want to have modern agriculture. We have a lot to offer based on our experience and our mistakes. We are sending a number of Azerbaijani participants to training courses in Israel that are conducted by MASHAV, which is Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These are short-term courses which are dedicated to water management, harvest, post-harvest, greenhouses, soil treatment, and marketing. The selection is according to merits and we have a number of suitable Azerbaijani participants.
In addition, we want to expose Azerbaijani decision makers to the whole chain that takes innovation and knowledge from leading and world-famous research centers in the field of agriculture to the farmer, and challenges from the farmer back to the research centers. This is another area where we try to promote cooperation and I hope that we will be able to do it with the ministry of agriculture and other stakeholders. The third ring of cooperation is between private companies. We have 10-15 Israeli companies that are already active here – in dairy farms, greenhouses, and drip irrigation. They sell the equipment and provide maintenance. In addition, I know of at least two big Israeli companies that are looking into joint ventures and investments and are exploring the possibilities to invest here in the agricultural sector. Today, more and more companies are looking into expanding their activities in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a lucrative market because you have hard-working people, excellent weather, good quality of water, good soil, and access to markets where we do not. It could be very interesting to explore these possibilities.
Q.: Both Azerbaijan and Israel pay a lot of attention to tourism development. How has the number of tourists from Azerbaijan to Israel and from Israel to Azerbaijan changed over the last few years? Do you plan any measures to promote cooperation in this sphere?
A.: If I speak about Israeli tourists coming to Azerbaijan, I can say that it was a kind of a historical day in October of 2017 when Israeli Israir started operating direct flights from Tel Aviv to Baku. AZAL has had a direct flight between Azerbaijan and Israel since the 1990’s. They were operating two flights during the winter and three flights during the summer and have been doing a great job in promoting Azerbaijan. But, Israir did a very aggressive marketing campaign and offered Baku as a European destination for weekend travel and started selling packages. When Israelis came here, I was really stunned by the overwhelming and enthusiastic feedback. The reactions were, “Wow, we did not expect it, it is a modern city, the people are so nice, the food is so delicious, and so on.” This positive reaction also manifests itself in the growing numbers – in 2016 about 10,000 Israeli tourists visited Azerbaijan and in 2017 that number reached 15,000. The prediction is that the number of Israeli tourists will triple if everything goes well. Tourists coming here help spread the word about Azerbaijan. I think that most of the Israelis that come here go back as ambassadors of goodwill for Azerbaijan. Now, we have direct flights from Tel Aviv to Baku almost every day through AZAL, Israir, and Arkia, another Israeli airline.
The number of Azerbaijani tourists coming to Israel is smaller. The consulate of Israel in Baku issued about 2,000 visas in 2017, including 186 tourist visas and 650 medical tourism visas. To me, it is a loss because some of my foreign colleagues went to Israel and returned overwhelmed with the country. It means that we have to do more to attract more Azerbaijani tourists. We will work with the ministry of tourism in Israel to see what we can do to invite tourist operators and journalist delegations to expose what Israel has to offer. After all, it is a very close destination – just three hours and you are there.
Q.: What places can you recommend to visit for foreign tourists coming to Israel and Azerbaijan?
A.: It depends on the character of the person. If I look at the younger generation that wants entertainment and bubbling life, Tel Aviv would obviously be a wonderful place because it is a mix of culture, entertainment, and has a lot of places to see, including the sea. If you are looking for heritage, Jerusalem is obviously a very important place. If you are looking for a desert and some unique geological formations there is a very beautiful 5-star hotel at Ramon Crater. It is wonderful there and you can have an introduction to the Bedouins, the indigenous population of this area, and their traditions. For those that enjoy anthropology, it can be very interesting.
For Christians, Muslims, and the Jewish people we have many sacred places and sites. If you like architecture, I think about the Baha’i centers in Haifa and Acre. Esthetically these are really wonderful places to visit. The Dead Sea, with its very unique composition of water where you cannot swim and can only float on, is also a very popular tourist destination. There are breath-taking views in Masada, which is our national symbol of heroism and sacrifice. It is kind of an old fortress and palace that was built over 2,000 years ago. If you want to go to the Southern part of Israel, there is Eilat, which is a resort city with many hotels, beautiful beaches, and beautiful wild desert sceneries.
For Azerbaijan, I can say the same. I have visited many regions in Azerbaijan and I do not know where to start. I like the Nij village with the old Udini church and a ruined church not far away from it, as well as the Kiş village with the Albanian church. I also like a village called Anykh in theQusar region where you can find a mosque similar to the Taj Mahal, which has very fascinating paintings inside. It is an old village with beautiful doors, gates, and balconies. Nakhchivan is magnificent. The scenery there is something so different from what we see around Baku. Alinja and Ordubad are wonderful – they have the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen. I like Lerik with its greenery, and desert on the other side, which has a beautiful museum of old aged people. There are so many nice places – Ganja with its rich history, like the old hammam and the old mosque, Sheki with its beautiful palace,Qabalawith its beautiful landscapes.
The last time I traveled I went to Gadabayand the people were so nice and helped us find the way to a beautiful deserted church. Even in the Absheron Peninsula, there are so many interesting places to visit –the fortress in Mardakan with a special design, and old oil producing areas with 150 years of oil extraction, it is very unique.
Q.: Which other spheres have good prospects for cooperation between our countries besides energy, agriculture, and tourism?
A.: We are very much interested in enhancing cooperation in the field of education. We have a very successful network of vocational training centers that will enable people to be professional mechanics, electricians, and technicians, and we would like to expand this cooperation. Another promising area for cooperation is basic education, early childhood development. The period from 0 to 6 years is very important, and we have advanced methods for how to treat kids at this age, and how to approach those who are not developed according to the norm. We would be very happy to cooperate on that. We are very keen to see more cooperation between the universities. There area number of agreements between Beersheba University and Medical Centre and the Medical University in Baku, between Haifa University and ADA University. We want to expand this cooperation to more and more universities.
We also want to enhance cooperation in the cyber sphere since cyber has become of strategic importance for the national security of every country. The environment is another area for good cooperation – a lot can be done in this sphere from the protection of endangered species to the rehabilitation of water resources and solutions, to soil degradation and desalination problems. Everywhere you have a need and we have the ability, we will be very happy to cooperate. And vice versa, we would be very keen to learn from you where you have knowledge and experience.
Q.: As you mentioned, Azerbaijan has a Jewish community. Could you please tell us about the life and activity of this community?
A.: The Jewish community in Azerbaijan is very well integrated into society. They enjoy absolute freedom of worship and religion. When you look at the synagogues here, how open they are, it is very different from the tragic situation in Europe, where in order to enter a synagogue you have to go through questioning, iron doors, and security guards. The Jewish people have a very open and safe life in Azerbaijan. They do not feel intimidated, they do not feel threatened. The biggest and the most ancient Jewish community in Azerbaijan, which, as I mentioned before, possibly arrived here in the sixth century B.C. is the mountainous Jewish community. They speak their own unique language, which is called Judeo-Tat or Juhuri. Then you have a smaller one, the Ashkenazi Jewish community. They started to arrive here more or less with the oil boom of the 19th-century and then more came during the Second World War. A good number of these community members migrated to Israel at the beginning of the 1990’s. They still have a warm heart to Azerbaijan that brings them back almost every year. For example, when I was in Oghuz I saw a number of Jewish people in the synagogue and they told me that they had been born there and had moved to Israel, but they made it a point to come back yearly or at least every other year with their children. And they do it very enthusiastically. Moreover, there is a small community of Jewish people from Georgia, and then, there are a number of individual Jewish people that live in the South in the Jalilabad District.
Q.: What similarities have you discovered between the Israeli and Azerbaijani people while you have been living here in Azerbaijan?
A.: Both Azerbaijani and Israeli people are very warm, open, and kind. They are able to give you a feeling that you are at home. Both nations are very creative, each one in its own direction. The realm of innovation and start-ups is another area for cooperation. When it comes to the younger generation, people like the same music, they share the same ideas, and have the same culture, which is all due to globalization. Another thing which is very similar to us is while we are very patriotic and sometimes speak about wars, deep inside both nations want peace.