Baku, August 6, AZERTAC
In an exclusive interview with AZERTAC, outgoing Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mr. Rafael Harpaz has highlighted the relations between the two countries, and shared his impressions about Azerbaijan and its people. The following is the text of the interview:
- Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have been developing at a rapid pace in the past few years. What is your vision of the future of these relations?
- First and foremost, it has been a wonderful three years in Azerbaijan. Working as an ambassador in Azerbaijan was a great pleasure. It is a very special country, with lovely people, with many challenges. I think Azerbaijan is doing very well in many areas. It`s a relatively young country and we see what you have achieved in 24 years. It's amazing. We enjoy very special strategic relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. We have we succeeded in deepening and widening them significantly in the last few years. Relations are touching so many areas. First of all, there is strong appreciation of the Israeli leadership of President Ilham Aliyev. We have a high-level exchange between the leaders of both countries, we have very strong political consultations. In addition, we have very strong relations in the economic area. It touches many areas, agriculture, water technologies, high-tech, cyber, tourism, medical technologies. We have succeeded in developing our academic relations significantly. Science, research and development is very important.
In some areas we have great potential to move forward. Energy is one of them. Israel is still in the process of deciding about how to regulate our system of energy. As you know we discovered an enormous amount of natural gas offshore in Israel. We need to decide which percent of this to export, to whom we should export, how to allocate licenses, what to do with the revenues. We have zero experience in energy. Azerbaijan is a country that has a lot of experience, so it's an area that we want to learn from Azerbaijan. A significant amount of Israeli oil comes from Baku, from BTC.
The economic area is vital. Here the sky is the limit. We inaugurated Israel-Azerbaijan chamber of commerce two years ago. In addition, many delegations come to Azerbaijan, including from Israel, to participate in Bakutel, tourism fair, ADEX defense industry exhibition. Israel arranges its national pavilions at Azerbaijan agriculture exhibition. Azerbaijan is also sending delegations to various events in Israel. Academic and education areas are also of great significance. We will be more than willing to see an increase and we see it already in the number of students going from Azerbaijan to Israel. Israeli universities are demonstrating a lot of interest in working here. Delegations of top universities of Azerbaijan are also visiting Israel. For example, head of the National Academy of Sciences was on a visit in Israel.
- Azerbaijan is home to various religious and ethnic minorities. How would you rate tolerance in Azerbaijan?
- I would like to praise tolerance that exists in Azerbaijan. The Jewish community enjoys wonderful conditions here. You can always deepen it and widen it and that is what, I am sure, we continue to do. But Israel appreciates a lot the Azerbaijani people, the Azerbaijani leadership and the achievements that Azerbaijan has reached in the last 24 years of its independence. This is really something very special. Azerbaijan is a country with no anti-Semitism. Look all over the world. Look in Western Europe. Azerbaijan is unique and people should know this story. It's a model and, I say it very openly, it`s a model for tolerance. By the way not only for Jews, for other minorities. But when it comes to Jews, Mountainous Jews have been living here for thousands of years. You have the Jewish community in Guba, Krasnaya Sloboda, you have synagogues in Baku. You have small communities in Sumgayit, in Ganja, in Oghuz. Jews have always lived safely, proudly as part of the Azerbaijani society. It`s a unique story.
- What are your impressions of Azerbaijan?
- Azerbaijan is a place that will stay in my heart forever. Azerbaijan is not a place that you leave with a one way ticket. I will come back because I have many friends here. It is a place that like we say in Israel when we are in Azerbaijan we feel like home. Azerbaijani people remind me a lot of Israeli people - warm, friendly, inviting. Hospitality here is something very-very common. The list of my Azerbaijani friends that are planning to come to Israel is very big. Many already came by the way. AZAL is flying twice a week to Israel now. We try to book the flights. And the flights are full. It shows how strong our relations are. I see also an increase in the number of Israeli tourists coming to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis are welcoming Israeli visa regime. We lifted it for official passports completely, but also for usual tourists it is very easy to come. And I see more and more Azerbaijanis coming to and visiting friends in Israel. You can feel like home when you come to Israel.
- We would like to learn your opinion about the first European Games that Azerbaijan recently hosted.
- I want to congratulate the Azeri people and Azerbaijani government on this wonderful success. First, I think it brought the story of Azerbaijan to the world. We have had in Israel itself more than three hundred hours of broadcast from the games on two Israeli channels. The organization was wonderful, the opening and closing ceremony, security, all elements were perfectly arranged. Our Olympic committee, which has big experience, they have been to all the different Olympic Games, told me that it's the highest level possible. Second, Israel came with the biggest ever delegation in our history - more than two hundred Israelis all together came to Baku. It was much more than what we had in the Olympic Games in Athens, in Beijing, in London and also in Rio that will be next year, and it was part of our support for those Games. Our Olympic Committee was among the first Olympic Committees that supported holding the Games in Azerbaijan. In addition, the Israeli delegation visited the Jewish community in Azerbaijan. And it was broadcast by Israeli television and highlighted by the media and newspapers to show the stories of Azerbaijan as a model. So it was a wonderful event. There are a lot of big sports events coming. I regret that maybe I will come as a tourist. You have the Formula 1, Islamic Games and then in 2020 Azerbaijan is going to host the four Games of the European Football Championship. So I think it is very important. And you've got so many medals. We won twelve medals, two of them were gold. We were very happy, because our expectation was between six and nine medals.
- What is your position on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
- Our position is clear. We want this conflict to be solved peacefully in compliance with international norms. We support the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group, and we recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Establishing peace and stability in the region is very important.