As a true representative of cultural and religious diversity of his country, Israel’s Arab Christian Ambassador to Baku, Mr. George Deek, in an interview with Azeri Observer, speaks about similarities with Azerbaijan in these issues and says why he feels it like a second home. He explains how Israel turned its every curse into a blessing and why he believes that it is the time for Azerbaijan to seize the future. He also talks about the humanitarian projects implemented by Israel for the support of the Azerbaijani people, what expertise Israel can bring to contribute to the restoration and rehabilitation of the liberated territories, and what he expects in the bilateral cooperation in the post-pandemic period.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: While preparing for this interview, I found many articles in the international media, explaining why Azerbaijan and Israel have such close relations. As the Ambassador of Israel to Azerbaijan, could you give your own explanation?
Answer: The relations between our countries are like a strong tree. You have the deep roots of the past of centuries-old friendship between the Azerbaijani people and the Jewish people, which continue to this day. These roots are characterized by the values of religious tolerance and mutual respect. Then there is the tree trunk, which is the strategic partnership between us. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence, and Azerbaijan was one of the first Muslim-majority countries to develop strategic relations with Israel. We have important common goals, such as energy diversity, economic relations and ensuring regional security. And today we see our tree’s growing branches, high into the sky. These branches are the relations between the people. We see it in tourism, in development, in business, and in interfaith activity. Together, we are ready to cooperate for the development of water security, renewable energy, innovation, hi-tech, and much more, which are of great importance for the future.
Q.: Israel was among the strongest supporters of Azerbaijan’s just stance in the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year, and we are very grateful to your country for it. Could you explain the reasons behind this support?
A.: My country had fought many wars in its 73 years of independence. And yet, even during the most difficult wars, we never stopped praying for peace. We want to build a future of peace, prosperity and cooperation in the region for all our children, Jews and Arabs alike. Today we see our hopes come to life, with four peace agreements in one year, with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, in addition to the agreements we already have with Egypt and Jordan. I wish the same for Azerbaijan and all its neighbors. Israel has always supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and this position remained unchanged throughout the Second Karabakh War and its aftermath. It is natural that our friendship, which is not aimed against any other country, will continue to solidify and grow in such testing times. And today, when its territorial integrity has been restored, Azerbaijan can begin the restoration of the liberated territories, and hopefully the development of peaceful relations in the region. During the war, I visited Ganja just after the civilian population was targeted there. I remember Artur Mayakov’s aunt and friend, and their helplessness just hours before Artur passed away. (Ed. Note: The 13-year old Russian citizen, Artur Mayakov, was killed by an Armenian missile attack in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja in Oct. 2020.) No child, no matter his nationality, ethnicity or faith, should experience such tragedy. The children of the region deserve a better future of prosperity and hope. Therefore, we welcome the dialogue between the two sides, since only cooperation and good neighbourliness can mark a new chapter in the region. The opening of trade routes is a good example, since it could serve for the benefit of both nations.
Q.: How does the activity of Jewish diaspora in Azerbaijan contribute to the development of bilateral relations?
A.: The Jewish community in Azerbaijan is a remarkable one. They are patriotic Azerbaijanis, and feel a deep sense of belonging to this country. Jews in Azerbaijan have lived here for centuries, and yet never experienced persecution or hate. In fact, they contribute to the greater good, in science for example, like Lev Landau who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1962, or mathematicians like Lotfi Zadeh, and many others. At the same time, they have their deep connection to Israel, rooted in their heritage and history. That makes them an important bridge between our nations. The same goes for the Azerbaijani diaspora in Israel. Both the Jewish community in Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijanis living in Israel represent the common values of religious tolerance and the welcomed diversity of our nations.
Q.: Has our cooperation somehow been affected by the coronavirus pandemic? How do the bilateral ties develop in the new normal?
A.: The pandemic affected everyone, everywhere. I see people who lost their jobs, children without schools, and growing poverty and frustration everywhere. This is a global challenge, which will shape our lives for at least several years ahead. And of course, diplomacy has been immensely affected as well. Our profession is based on human contact, meetings, public speeches and closed-door discussions, events, etc. So naturally, our plans had to change drastically. I’m glad to say that at the embassy in Baku we managed to increase the cooperation between our countries in the health sector during the pandemic, as we organized many online consultations between our experts in Israel and the Ministry of Health and TABIB (Ed. Note: Azerbaijani State Management Union of Medical Territorial Units) here.
It is not a secret that the pandemic was a big blow to the global economy, and has affected the trade internationally. On the bilateral level, for example, we had over 50,000 tourists from Israel to Azerbaijan in 2019 who contributed to the airlines, to the hotel industry, and to the local tourism markets. In 2020, there were no tourists, no flights, and hotels were shut down. So obviously, it was a bad year for the economy. But we are now in the recovery process. Over 90% of Israelis above 16 years old already received at least one shot of the vaccine, which makes us the leading country globally by far. We hope that within the next several weeks we will finish the vaccination process and be the first country in the world to exit the pandemic crisis. That would allow us to reopen our economy. I believe that by working together, through the Joint Intergovernmental Commission headed by Minister Jabbarov (Ed. Note: Azerbaijan’s Economy Minister), we can restore the trade volume between us, and make it even bigger than ever before, inshallah.
Q.: Azerbaijani oil is the basis of our trade turnover with Israel. What other trade products are worth mentioning? Do you think that any new goods could be added to the basket?
A.: This is the time to focus on Azerbaijan’s mega-efforts to restore and rehabilitate the liberated territories, and I think Israel can be a relevant partner in these efforts. After the war I visited some of them. The sight of the wreckage and emptiness was sad. But as the late Israeli president, Shimon Peres, once said: “Where there is nothing, everything is possible.” The restoration of these territories is a big challenge, but it’s also a big opportunity. Imagine if instead of another traditional town, you can create a place where Azerbaijanis can enjoy good housing, green energy, training and employment, to help make them exporters of new products to new markets that didn’t exist before. This is where Israel can be a partner. We have a lot of experience working in Azerbaijan and our people understand each other. We can bring Israeli expertise in demining, agriculture, water management, hi-tech, renewable energy, and we add to that our ability to be practical and work efficiently. Don’t forget that we have a lot of experience in absorbing immigration and creating new ways of living – the Kibbutz, the Moshav, etc. We have already made some presentations to the Azerbaijani government regarding the ideas that we have in mind. We took note of President Aliyev’s remarks that friendly nations will get the attention of Azerbaijan, and we look forward to having Israeli companies working in these territories.
Q.: When it comes to high technologies, Israel can be proud of its achievements in many spheres – renewables, agriculture, medicine and pharmacology, IT, etc. Could you tell us about the prospects of cooperation in these spheres?
A.: Innovation doesn’t happen by itself, it happens where there is a necessity and a willingness to be bold, creative and innovative. In its first 70 years, Israel did not have any natural resources; it was surrounded by a hostile neighbourhood of countries that repeatedly launched wars and economic boycotts against her; the territory of Israel is just 22,000 square kilometers – that’s 25% of the size of Azerbaijan, and more than 60% of that territory is desert. So how do we do it? By turning every curse into a blessing. We didn’t have enough water to drink? We developed water treatment and desalination, and today we are exporters of water technology. Our land is 60% desert? We developed advanced precision agriculture and today we export roughly 90% of our produce. Our neighbours boycott us? We create new markets overseas. We have no natural resources? We use the best resource we all have: our brains. In other words, Israel seizes the future, because the future belongs to those who innovate. I believe that Azerbaijan is in a pivotal point in which it is starting a journey to create its own destiny, by diversifying its economy, moving to green energy, and to the development of the territories. What was enough for the past may not be enough for the future. Now is the time for Azerbaijan to seize the future. We already have established a good dialogue with the government of Azerbaijan on all these issues – agriculture, health, renewable energy, water, and more. Israel is ready to be your partner in that journey.
Q.: Could you tell us about the humanitarian, cultural and educational exchanges between our nations?
A.: Naturally because of the pandemic, and also because of the humanitarian consequences of the war, we have focused on medical exchanges in the last year. Together with the YASHAT Foundation (Ed. Note: The Foundation supports the war-wounded and families of martyrs who protected the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan) we initiated the medical humanitarian delegation, in which a team of eight – six doctors and two technicians, were invited to Baku to treat over 150 Azerbaijanis who were injured during the war. These eye doctors and oculoplastic surgeons, who all came as volunteers, left their clinics and clients in Israel for an entire week. They actually lost money, but it was important to come here and help people who lost their sight to see again, and those wounded to regain their normal lives. The efforts were inspirational, and the stories were truly touching. In addition, since October we have provided TABIB and the Azerbaijani Ministry of Health with advanced medical equipment for the hospitals to allow the medical staff to treat the sick and injured. In addition, we provided heaters, foodstuffs and other basic necessities to the people in Ganja who lost their homes in the attacks during the war. We also visited Shelters of Children and Women who experienced domestic violence and provided them with clothing and gifts. We visited a center of treating Autism and agreed on cooperation. This is a partial list of what we have already done, despite the pandemic. This was also a good year to focus on social media, something that I personally enjoy. The embassy is sharing our hard work and our messages through all platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We hope that after the pandemic situation, we will be able to resume many other exchanges between our nations. There are Azerbaijanis who travelled to Israel for MASHAV training (Ed. Note: MASHAV is Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) in agriculture, and others spent many months learning the tourism industry and hotel services in Israel for example. Also here in Azerbaijan you have the vocational training program of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Education, together with the Israeli organization ORT, providing thousands of Azerbaijanis with professional and vocational skills.
Q.: You have lived in Azerbaijan for over a year and have had time to get to know our country and our people. What similarities and differences do you see between Azerbaijan and Israel?
A.: There are so many similarities between us. First is the cultural and religious tolerance and the diversity of the people. Both our countries respect the religious minorities within them and ensure equality and the freedom of worship. I myself am an Arab Christian Israeli. I guess this similarity was most evident when I met Member of Parliament, Anatoly Rafailov, a Jewish Azerbaijani. Imagine that picture: a meeting between a Jew representing Azerbaijan and an Arab representing Israel.
Another similarity is the warm hospitality. Wherever I go here I am received warmly; there’s always tea, jam and all the goods you can think of. People invite you to their house to meet their families, so you are never lonely here. This is very much like my community in Israel, something that makes me feel very comfortable in this country, a second home. There are also other similarities, less positive, like the very emotional and loud driving culture in our countries, but I guess this comes with the package of warm-blooded cultures.
Q.: What has most impressed you about the culture and history of Azerbaijan? What makes this country unique from the other places?
A.: One of the most impressive facts about this country is that it granted women the right to vote already in 1919! This makes it the first Muslim-majority country in the world to do so. Countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are still debating at best, or suppressing at worst, the issue of women participation in the political and social life. It is quite astonishing that Azerbaijan has marked 103 years since women voted for the first time. Women in Azerbaijan are holding key positions such as the speaker of the Parliament, the Ombudswoman, and even the first Vice-President. Let me share that I had the great privilege of meeting a young lady named Reyhan Jamalova. She is a young entrepreneur who invented a technology of producing energy from rainwater and is now leading her own company. She was truly inspiring, and her gender never seemed to be an issue for her. This is the kind of empowerment that can take this society forward. I strongly believe that when women are free, equal and empowered, the entire society flourishes. And when women are deprived their freedom, the entire society remains shackled and bound. I’m proud that both our countries are on the right side of history on this issue.