February 17, 2020

A Leader and a Friend: The Loss of Shimon Peres Felt Throughout Azerbaijan

The loss of Shimon Peres was something I experienced on a deeply personal level. I have had the honor of meeting him and have a great understanding of what he stood for; values I also hold dear to my heart and values that are the basis for the great friendship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan. I was honored to be a part of a full delegation from Azerbaijan, led by Deputy Prime Minister Elchin Afandiyev, to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres in Israel.

I first met Shimon Peres in 2013 when a delegation led by Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visited Israel. Not only was it a milestone as the first time an Azerbaijani Foreign Minister was visiting Israel, but it came at a time when there was increasing pressure to isolate Israel and instead, Azerbaijan took the risk for a good friend and it was a historic cementing of the relationship that has continued to grow.

Especially in these current weeks, following a big American election and much continued strife across the vulnerable regions of the Middle East, this world can feel unstable, and the loss of such a leader can only make that feeling worse. Yet what is most unique about Shimon Peres and all he stood for are qualities that are actually quite stable and lasting.  Although many knew him as a dreamer, he was the kind of person that made dreams into a reality, even those that may seem impossible. In fact, my favorite quote of Mr. Peres is “For me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic”. For us in Azerbaijan, the first democracy in the Muslim world (1918), we also walk a fine line between what is practical and what is truly a dream. Azerbaijan strives for peace and stability while surrounded by instability; something we share very much in common with Mr. Peres’s homeland.

President Peres visited Azerbaijan on more than a few occasions. These visits were strategic, but also sentimental. The connection between the leaders of Israel and Azerbaijan goes beyond the political. I remember in 2009 when then President Peres came to Baku. He became the first Israeli President paying a state visit to Azerbaijan – a milestone development in the bilateral relations between our two nations. Accompanied by an impressive delegation of 60 Israeli government and business leaders, President Peres had insightful discussions with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Welcoming him in Azerbaijan, President Aliyev said: “I am happy to host you in my country. This is a very important visit for Azerbaijan and we are interested in expanding and strengthening the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel in the areas of security, diplomacy and the economy.” Peres responded by saying “Israel has been blessed with creativity and one of the highest levels of research and science in the world, and we will gladly invest in Azerbaijan and broaden the cooperation between Israeli and regional companies.” Indicating the continuing military occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory by neighboring Armenia, President Peres noted: “Israel and Azerbaijan are both countries that must maintain their military strength because we are both under constant threat. At the same time, I am proud that both Israel and Azerbaijan are countries that pursue peace and will do anything to achieve peace with our neighbors.””.

I remember in 2015, when Mr. Peres visited Azerbaijan again and gave a lecture to students at ADA University, and focused on our shared national interests across a wide span of topics and issues, and most especially, in the fight against extremism and terrorism. The students were able to follow his speech with questions, and I recall so many observing  that Mr. Peres was very easy to relate to and make a connection with.

The esteemed pioneer and leader of the international movement for peace lived a long and meaningful life,  but the loss of it still comes with a certain sadness; something felt strongly around the globe and in Azerbaijan as well. Perhaps that is best captured by our own President, who visited the Israeli Embassy in Baku to offer his condolences, and who sent a letter to Israel’s current President Reuven Rivlin. In his letter, President Aliyev wrote: “Dear Mr President, I’m stricken by the death of former President of Israel, renowned statesman and public-political figure, Nobel prize laureate Shimon Peres. Over this huge loss, on my own behalf and on behalf of the people of Azerbaijan, I offer my heartfelt condolences to You, to the family and close ones of the deceased, and to the whole people of Israel.”

I believe we need more men like Shimon Peres in the world today, men that are willing to take risks and build bridges and create peace. In turbulent times like these the ability to listen, learn and embrace a broader vision of global harmony is needed more than ever.