Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Israel to Azerbaijan George Deek interviewed by APA Agency
"I remember, once Minister Mikayil Jabbarov called me an ambassador of two states. I am very glad that now we will finally have two ambassadors for two countries"
– After almost 30 years the government of Azerbaijan recently announced its decision to open an embassy in Israel, which was praised by the Israeli government as a "historical decision". How will the opening of the embassy contribute to relations?
–Thank you so much for having me on APA again. Always a pleasure to talk to you. The historic decision of the Azerbaijani government to open an embassy is a breakthrough in our relations. I think there was a deep dissonance between the depth of our relations and the level of representation. And now when the embassy will finally be opened, hopefully in the next few months, there will finally be a match between the depth and the level of representation. So, we are very happy about that, we have been waiting for a long time. I think the importance of this decision is on several levels.
First of all, it is a message to our own people both in Israel and in Azerbaijan that both countries are very proud and open and public about their friendship, about the closeness between them on the governmental level and on the public level.
Secondly, it is important to message to other countries in this region, in another region, in our region as well, that Israel as a Jewish state can be friends and close to countries in the Middle East like we have with Abrahamic Accords, we opened embassies in UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and others and they just opened last year in Israel, as well. Also Azerbaijan and other countries on the periphery of our region with which we had very close relations for several decades. So, this is a strong message and I think for Azerbaijan, it is also a strong message to the countries in this region, as well. The relationship with Israel is something to be proud of. Thirdly, I think the biggest beneficiary of these relations is going to be the Azerbaijani government and the Azerbaijani people. Because now Azerbaijan is going to have representation in Israel, it will have a voice in Israel, it will have a personal ambassador and his/her team will be able to go meet and talk to Israelis whether in the government, in the private sector, in the cultural field, on the street and to really be able to connect Israeli know-how, Israeli technology, Israeli expertise and to bring it to Azerbaijan in a way that was not possible before. I remember Minister Jabbarov once described me as one ambassador of two states, as flattering as it may have sounded, I am very happy that finally now we will have two ambassadors for two states because our states and the relationship between our states deserve that kind of representation. So, I want to thank the leadership of Azerbaijan for paving the way for this decision by opening the first trade office and tourism board office and Inshallah, soon the embassy. And the last thing I would like to emphasize this decision is not an end, it is a beginning. It does not end 30 years of friendship, it is only one more brick, major big brick in this building that we are constructing together, jointly that is called Azerbaijani-Israeli friendship.
"We are going to have about 8 direct flights every week by AZAL to Israel"
– It is almost more than a year since Azerbaijan opened a trade and tourism office in Israel. From a practical point of view, what are the results of this initiative, are there any indicators in terms of development?
– Absolutely. The opening of the trade and tourism office has signalled a trend, a positive trend in the relations. For example, the tourism board office, if you follow them on social media you can see how active they are in exposing Azerbaijani culture to Israel. Just last week they had a wine-tasting event bringing Azerbaijani wines to Israel and exposing them to experts in the wine field in Israel. That is opening new windows, you can see the results in the number of tourists who are coming from Israel to Azerbaijan. We already had an increase before this office was opened, in 2016 there were about 10 000 tourists, and in 2019 we already had 50 000 tourists. But then, because of COVID-19, tourism stopped and for a long time, we did not know how and if it would be restored. But very happy I can say that if we look at the first half of this year, we can see that it is going back to the same numbers as 2019, we are around the ratio of 50 000 per year, in addition, AZAL is going to operate more flights next year to Israel, we are going to have about 8 direct flights every week by AZAL to Israel. That is what is being discussed these days. In addition, we are going to have about 3 flights by "Israir" from Israel. So, we are talking more than ten flights per week, which is huge and reflects the level of potential of tourism from both sides.
In addition, in the trading world, you can see a lot of activity being done. We had delegations coming here with the Minister of Agriculture of Israel who came here, two deals were signed in the field of agriculture and water resources. "Mekorot", the Israeli national water company, signed an agreement with a Meloration Committee of Azerbaijan on building strategy for water fields, other companies in the agricultural world signed different contracts whether it is in poultry, drip irrigation, dairy farms as well in Shamakhi. So, you can see the work is starting to take place. I just came back from the conference regarding the Space Agency and also over there there was interest in cooperating in the space field. So, these are things we are seeing happening. But I have to be honest it is still not enough, it is still very low. Our trade if you take out the oil from our trade relation, our trade level is much lower than what should be between such good friendly countries. So, therefore I think we have a lot of work to do and as I said opening the embassy is only going to be the beginning. There is a lot of work to do and we are going to work together through our embassy here and the Azerbaijani embassy in Israel and the Azerbaijani trade office. Together we will push this forward.
– I would like to ask about the activities of Israeli companies in the liberated territories of Azerbaijan. I remember last year representatives of some companies visited those territories...
– As before, Israeli companies today and the Israeli government as well are more than willing to come and work in the liberated territories of Azerbaijan and to help in this momentous huge project of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of those territories. And we have expressed our readiness and in some areas, we have started working together or looking into it. In the smart village in Aghali, there is an Israeli company that has started building a dairy farm. We have Israeli companies who came to the demining field for a conference by ANAMA last month here in Azerbaijan and also toured the liberated territories. And we have companies in the field of agriculture and water, some of them have been to Karabagh territories and some of them will go soon. And I know there is an interest. But I can understand that rehabilitating territory almost the size of the entire state of Israel is not going to be an easy, small task. It is going to be a big one and Azerbaijan is capable of doing it but you will need all the help you can get from your friends and we are here to provide that. So, I cannot say that right now the activity is huge but it is getting there and we are seeing more and more activity in this field.
– The cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel covers different fields, but it is the defence and security cooperation between the two countries that journalists and experts always focus on. How do you assess cooperation in this field?
–I can tell you that one of the funny and most touching moments I had in my post in Azerbaijan was when I met a lady who told me that she had a baby born two years ago, after the second Karabakh war and she named her son "Harop". So, that was an interesting moment that I did not expect. But naturally, Azerbaijan and Israel are strategic partners, so we take it seriously. We do not use the word "strategic" in vain, we do not use it for any country, when we say it we mean it. And in that respect, our partnership is deep and it crosses various fields. One of them is security and our position also with regard to the issue of Karabakh has been very clear that we support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan full stop. And we also understand that Azerbaijan lives in a tough neighbourhood, with neighbours who do not shy away from making threats, and neighbours who make public or implied threats to Azerbaijan's independence or territorial integrity and as friends our partnership will do everything to empower Azerbaijan to prevent any forces from that. That is as much as I can say about partnerships in the security field.
– By the way, a few months ago, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz paid a surprise visit to Azerbaijan. What was the purpose of the trip?
– About the purpose of Mr Gantz's visit, I can tell you that usually, visits of Ministers of Defence will be a surprise for the media. Because when our minister visits we do not do it for the show, we do not do it just for the headlines, but there is a lot of substance to talk about. That has been the real purpose of the visit to talk about the substance of our cooperation. Unfortunately, I cannot speak publicly about those kinds of matters but I can tell you that coming here a few days before the general elections in Israel is very difficult for any politician to leave an election campaign and go to a foreign country. So, the Minister of Defence does that, you can see that it was very important for him and for our countries.
– The elections have already taken place and a new government cabinet will be formed in Israel, former PM Netanyahu was officially tasked with forming a new government. Relations between the two countries have been good during Netanyahu's previous era. So, what foreign policy of the new government regarding the South Caucasus, in particular, Azerbaijan?
– Very simply, you will not see any change in the policy of Israel towards Azerbaijan for a very simple reason. The relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan is beyond politics in Israel. Does not matter Prime Minister Netanyahu or it is Mr Lapid as he stays still these days. Our countries and the relationship between our countries will be seen as a strategic and important one for Israel as well as for Azerbaijan. So, I can assure you that the friendship will continue the same strength in the same trend of being strengthened, being bolstered whether it is a right-wing or left-wing government in Israel. Azerbaijan is a bipartisan issue as we say. It is neither an issue of right versus left nor Lapid versus Netanyahu. It is an Israeli interest, by Israeli I mean all Israelis, all Israeli parties, all Israeli governments and all Israeli Prime Ministers.
– Turkish-Israeli relations have been warming. There were high-level mutual visits. However, with Netanyahu coming to power as the Prime Minister, can these relations return to their previous state, that was in?
– Yes, I think a lot of people are worried about the results of the elections in Israel and there are also future elections in Turkiye what will that mean for rapprochement between Israel and Turkiye?! But if you ask me, I think that the rapprochement between our countries is going to continue regardless of those results. And I think that was the first time we saw Turkiye's President Erdogan make a phone call to the newly elected Prime Minister Netanyahu and congratulated him for winning the elections. They have agreed to turn a new page and to work on strengthening the relations between Israel and Turkiye. Netanyahu himself spoke several days ago when he said that he is more than happy to start a new chapter, a better chapter in Israel-Turkiye relations. So, we have to wait and see how this goes. But I am very optimistic for a simple reason, there is always an influence of personal ideology or the issue from the past emerging but at the end of the day President Erdogan and future PM Netanyahu are not representing only themselves, they are representing their countries and nations. And those countries have interests and those interests today ask us to come closer and work together. You can see it with the trend that is happening in the Arab world. Israel signed the Abraham Accords and made peace with several Arab countries which nobody ever imagined would happen so quickly. With the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, with Sudan before we had peace with Egypt, with Jordan and we have a good non-belligerent agreement with Saudi Arabia which we also hope will develop a peace agreement. So, you can see basically that our conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict, is almost gone and that is a good thing. It was good to see that also Turkiye is making amends with the Arab world, with countries like Emirates, the Saudis and also now to attempt with Egypt. And I think that all the countries of the region, Israel, Turkiye and the Arab world today realize that if we want a secure, better future for ourselves and our future generations we need to work together and fight the common threat that is emanating from the one country that is pushing for more violence, more chaos, more hate and more racism in the Middle East and that is Iran through its proxies in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq and elsewhere. And if we join forces together we may be able to stop them.
– You mentioned the Abraham Accords that were signed between Israel and the Arab countries, the normalization of relations between the parties we have seen. Can we expect steps toward continuing the normalization of relations after the formation of the new government? I mean because of the results of the election in Israel some countries like Jordan expressed their concerns, I read an article recently on that.
– We are all humans. Sometimes we are worried, sometimes we are less worried, and that is fine. But at the end of the day the interests of Israel, Jordan, and the Arab Emirates - everyone is going to work together. We have no other choice, not only we have no other choice but that is the will of our nations, that is the way to bring the potential of our nations to coming to fruition, security but also the economy, trade, cultural exchanges etc. So, elections always bring a level of uncertainty that makes people feel maybe worried, sometimes, but at the end of the day we will have a new government and that government will have to be judged by its actions not by the articles in the newspapers. So, I am very optimistic that at the end of the day things will go back to the normal way and in fact, they will be strengthened. And I urge you not to forget that the PM who signed the Abrahamic Accords is Benjamin Netanyahu and he was the PM who is coming back now. So, I look forward to seeing how he will make Abrahamic Accords even larger, he spoke about it in the media in the last few days and he was talking about enlarging Abrahamic Accords so bringing more countries to the Abrahamic Accords and I am very optimistic that we will see the Arab-Israeli conflict come to an end.
– I would like to ask about attacks in Israel. More than 10 people were killed in different attacks that took place in May. Just a few days ago, another terrorist attack happened. The steps were taken by the Israeli government in this direction...
– Unfortunately, terrorism has been part of our life for many decades. But fortunately, we have a strong army and strong security forces who are tasked with preventing those. We hear from time to time about stabbings or the last attack on the bus like two weeks ago. But if you look at the data, the last decade has been the quietest decade in Israel in terms of terrorist attacks because we were able to foil many of them. But it is important to remember that the number one catalyst of terrorist attacks against Israelis whether it is missile launching or others in Iran. Who is funding and supporting the Islamic Jihadists in Gazza, supporting Hamas, supporting Hizbollah in Lebanon and they are not doing it only against Israelis or in Israel? Just a few months ago they tried to attack Israelis in Istanbul in Turkiye, something that in the end brought Israel and Turkiye closer together. Because through the cooperation between our intelligence and defence ministries and apparatus we were able to not only foil, to prevent Iranian terrorist attacks against Israel but we were also able to stop and arrest, Turkiye was able to do it through the help of Israel four terrorist Iranians in Istanbul. So, that is a huge success, I mean, it only shows the potential of Israel and Turkiye working together in the security field against Iranian terrorism. Lately, I think last month Iran tried to assassinate an Israeli businessman in Georgia, it was published in the news and again through cooperation in intelligence with Georgian authorities we were able to stop the Iranians from killing that businessman. I can tell you that even in Baku or in Turkiye or everywhere, Iran whatever it can, will attack and I am happy that Azerbaijan arrested a network of Iranian spies lately. But that is also a source of worries that Iran doesn't stop wherever they go. They try to build a network that will bring chaos, violence, hatred, and misogynism to the region. But in the end, when you look at it as a country that is killing its own women, oppressing its own people, denying the right of people to speak their language, or denying the religious people to practise their faith, that is a country that cannot do anything but bring to more terror, violence and the hate to the world.
– Considering the situation I mean what happened in Istanbul or in Tbilisi, Israel MFA will warn the citizens not to travel to this region or regional countries.
– We have our travel warning system, and when we see that the situation is extremely dangerous we provide appropriate advice to our citizens as all countries do. Not just Israel, Azerbaijan does it, but the US, European countries, the UK, etc. whether it is because of terrorist threats or because of COVID and pandemic threats. So, if we continue to do that we will not be intimidated into silence by terrorism, we will not prevent from living our lives, and we will not be prevented from travelling and seeing the world. When I see more and more Israelis travelling the world, when I see dozens of thousands of Israelis coming to Baku, dozens of thousands of Israelis going to Turkiye, to Georgia and everywhere, that is a sign that we are not afraid, we are continuing living our lives, we will not be intimidated and that is the message that countries like Israel, Azerbaijan, Turkiye are sending to Iran.
– About the latest developments in this region, more precisely, protests in Iran, because the Iranian government accuses the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia because of the happenings...
– Iran is not the Israeli problem or Azerbaijani problem, Iran is a global problem. It is a problem for the world, it is causing instability, and it is disturbing harmonic relations between countries, everywhere. We see them trying to commit terrorist attacks, we see them trying to destabilise governments, and regimes throughout the Middle East and there is a reason when Israel and the Arab world are speaking in one voice it doesn't happen a lot when it happens people should listen.
The first thing we must all do, the international community must do is to stop Iran from being able to acquire nuclear weapons. Because right now imagine how much terror and chaos they are doing now, imagine how much of that they can do if they have a nuclear umbrella giving them practical immunity from paying prices for terrorism. So, that is the number one item that the entire international community should work on. And now when we see Iran changing its policy, getting closer to, selling drones, providing weapons to Russia and so on. We see that even the opinion in the West is changing that perhaps the Western world would also give up on the attempts of appeasement and attempts to bring quiet to the world at the price of future nuclear Iran and will stand up to Iran and stop it and that could be not easy but it could be achieved through crippling sanctions, international pressure and with the credible military options against Iran. When you have those things that the international community can do, we can stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Secondly, I think that countries like Israel, Azerbaijan, Turkiye, the Arab world should come together to create a block that will stop Iran from its malicious activities in the region where it is trying to spread terror and instability and violence throughout the region. That is something that is happening as we speak and it will continue to evolve because Iran is a threat to world peace and it is a threat not only to our countries but to the world. The world must work together to stop.
– Israel has an interesting approach to Iran, I mean, at a different level, I have always heard that Israel, Iran's government and the Iranian people are different. Today Iranian people are protesting and demanding a democratic, transparent system, in their fight, how can the international community, including Israel, support Iranian society?
– The greatest tragedy that the Islamic Republic of Iran has brought to the world is not even how it treats other countries but how it treats its own people. The people of Iran are great people, they have a rich and profound history, even in relations with Jewish people. We always had a close friendship that goes all the way back to Darius, the Persian ruler of old age. And that is something even today we have Israelis who are originally from Iran, whose grandparents or parents immigrated from Iran. They speak with great warmth and love for cities like Isfahan, Tehran or others. But that has been killed by the Islamic Republic and today we see the women of Iran being killed and tortured by brutal forces of the Iran Revolutionary Guards or morality police or immorality police. When we see that the children of Iran are being spied on and attacked and some children are even killed by the security forces of Iran. When we see that people are prohibited from living a normal life, from speaking the language that they practise, people are prohibited from practising a religion that they practise, in the end, the greatest victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people themselves. If the world wants to help the people of Iran to gain their liberty, and freedom we must stand with them. Barack Obama recently said in an interview that it was a mistake that he made in 2009 when he didn't support the demonstrations in Iran in 2009. He said it was a mistake. So, I urge the Western world, and people all around the world not to repeat the mistake of 2009. We must stand up with the people in Iran. People of all groups, of all ethnicities, of all religions, of all classes and of all genders, we must tell them the world stands with you against the brutal and hateful violent machine called the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is the message that has to go across the countries of the world.
– My last question on another important issue, the Russian war in Ukraine. As we know the international community supports Ukraine to defend its territorial integrity, sovereignty and freedom. Countries sending military, humanitarian, and financial assistance, including Israel/ We know Israel has done a lot in this regard but Ukraine wants military support that the Israeli government rejects. Why does not Israel send military assistance to Ukraine?
– For us, the situation in Ukraine is extremely tragic. Our government has expressed several times its condemnation of what Russia has done and we stand with Ukrainian people who fight for their territorial integrity, life and freedom. We have done a lot to help people in Ukraine whether it is field hospitals that we have built or other humanitarian steps for Ukraine and Ukrainian people but we also have to take into consideration as a country. Some of our national interests, first of all, we cannot ignore the fact that there is a very big Jewish community in Russia that might be priced if we take any other stand and also the fact that Russia is our neighbour in Syria and if anyone should be pointed at it is those countries who allowed Russia to come back into the Middle East and take Syria and make its military base for itself.
So, we will continue to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom but we will also continue to stand firm for our red lines when it comes to national security and the national interest of the state of Israel.
Israel has voted in the UN together with the U.S. and the Western world in support of Ukraine.
Photo Ilkin Nabiyev © APA group