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Why Did the Administration Leak the Israel-Azerbaijan Story?

Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari has written in the Times of Israel claiming last week’s bombshell from Foreign Policy magazine about Azerbaijan’s willingness to allow Israel to use its air bases to strike Iran was pure fiction. Yaari excoriates the editors of Foreign Policy, the Israeli press (including, presumably, the Times of Israel, which prominently reported it) and anyone else (including, presumably, me) for taking it seriously. But though Yaari presents some good arguments why it might not be true, unlike magazine author Mark Perry, he offers no sources or reporting to back up his assertion.

But even if we assume Yaari is right and Perry’s piece is wrong, there are some interesting questions to be posed about the piece. Unless you are willing to believe, as perhaps Yaari and others disputing its authenticity do, that Perry is lying about the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration leaked the story to him, it’s still important to ask why they did so. What possible motive could they have had?

The answer is simple. Whether the air base angle was true or not, publicizing the ongoing close cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan (something Yaari actually concedes is factual) can only make it more difficult for that relationship to continue. Because, as Yaari rightly notes, Perry is no friend of Israel, the willingness of Obama’s minions to circulate the tale speaks volumes about the off-the-record malevolence that lurks beneath the surface of the president’s current charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters.

As to the facts of the piece, Yaari has a fair point when he asks how Israeli planes could fly to Azerbaijan to launch strikes against Iran. As he notes, Iran’s friend Turkey is not likely to permit the Israeli Air Force to fly over its territory to get to the Azeri bases. But Perry’s story seems to indicate that the use of the bases would be used to land the planes after an attack on Iran, not necessarily as the source of possible attacks. Because Yaari knows Israel is currently able to fly in arms it is supplying to the Azeris, the notion that it has the ability to send personnel needed for refueling, rescue or other services that the IAF might need in the event of an attack on Iran does not seem to be such a flight of fancy.

Yaari also has a cogent criticism when he ponders how exactly the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan could hope to get away with defying Iran as Tehran has been so helpful to the Azeris in their conflict with Armenia. He also might have asked whether Russia would tolerate such behavior. But to ask such questions is not the same thing as having proof that the Azeris are not contemplating life after Iran’s regional ambitions are cut down to size by an Israeli attack. Moreover, as Yaari himself readily concedes, the fact that Azerbaijan “maintains close relations with Israel including big arms and oil deals,” it is also not unreasonable to assume that the conflict with Iran is now part of that equation.

Yaari seems to infer that because Perry has no love for Israel, his effort to publicize the Israel-Azeri alliance is to undermine it. Yaari also appears to believe that any story whose premise is based on the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran is similarly ill-intentioned. But that brings us back to what I have always thought was just as important as the idea of the air bases themselves: why the Obama administration leaked it in the first place.

Rather than breaking our heads on the question of just how far the Azeris are prepared to go in defying Iran for the sake of their friendship with Israel (the answer to which is as much a mystery to Yaari as it is to me), we would all do better to consider why it was so important for the State Department and the White House that this friendship be placed in jeopardy. Those pondering what a second term for President Obama would mean to Israel need to think more about the leakers’ motives than those of Perry or the editors at Foreign Policy.


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