While Israel’s budding relationships with other Middle Eastern countries have grabbed headlines over the past two months, one recent diplomatic victory was reversed almost as soon as it had happened. 29 years after achieving statehood, Armenia finally opened an Embassy in Israel on September 18. Last week, Armenia recalled its ambassador back to Yerevan.

The whiplash follows from Israel’s side role in the renewed conflict between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave formally within Azerbaijan. Fighting in the waning days of the U.S.S.R. and a full-scale war in the early 1990s left Armenian forces in control of the territory, as well as several surrounding districts. The line of contact remained largely quiet for more than two decades, but intensified clashes occurred in 2016 and earlier this summer. Now, Armenia — with a population less than a third the size of Azerbaijan’s — is cornered by Baku to the east, and its much larger ally, Turkey, in the west.

Today, Israel is Azerbaijan’s top arms supplier, accounting for about 60% of Azerbaijani weapons imports, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Since clashes broke out again last month in Nagorno Karabakh, there have been reports of a revolving door of cargo planes on resupply missions between Baku, Ben-Gurion Airport, and Israeli air bases.

Israel and Azerbaijan’s mutual embrace somewhat mirrors Israel’s awkward dance with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Relations between Israel and each of these countries are often framed as a victory for peace and Muslim-Jewish ties. As with the UAE and Bahrain, Azerbaijan has never been at war with Israel. Moreover, Azerbaijan is a distinctly secular country without a state religion, and specifically highlighting the religious tolerance angle makes as little sense as it does in the case of Kosovo.

Of course, it is an unambiguously good thing that Muslim Azeris and Jewish Israelis can freely interact and that Azerbaijan’s own Jewish community does not face antisemitic persecution. But the skewed presentation of interfaith solidarity where there was never any history of conflict between Israel and Azerbaijan obscures the real basis for Israel-Azerbaijan relations, which is arms sales and hydrocarbons. It also helps the Aliyev family, Azerbaijan’s hereditary dictatorship, bury its own human rights abuses with puff-pieces about pluralism and openness.

Some Israelis have actively volunteered, wittingly or otherwise, as boosters for Baku. Prominent Israeli politicians including Avigdor Liberman, Michael Oren, and Sofa Landver served as observers in Azerbaijan’s rigged 2015 parliamentary elections. During that contested vote, Azerbaijani restrictions prevented OSCE observers from carrying out a monitoring mission. Nevertheless, the Israeli delegation ran cover for the regime, with Liberman praising Azerbaijani “democracy” and bemoaning the supposed double standards faced by both Israel and Azerbaijan. Thus, Azerbaijan’s experience offers a lesson to despots in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and beyond, which is that ties with Israel can deliver a public relations coup with impressionable Western, and especially American, audiences.

Regarding the conflict with Armenia, Israel is not directly responsible for decisions made by Azerbaijan’s leaders. Still, the influence of a rearmament process in which Israeli technology has been instrumental cannot be ignored. Recently, Azerbaijan has demonstrated increasing confidence in disrupting the status quo, beginning with the Four Day War in 2016 and continuing on to clashes this summer and the current round of fighting. Baku’s escalating brinkmanship coincides with a modernization program meant to bring its Cold War-era military into the twenty-first century, while Armenia, still dependent on Russia, lags behind. Israeli companies like Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel Weapons Industries, Rafael, and Elbit have outfitted Azerbaijan with everything from advanced kamikaze drones to anti-armor weapons and artillery, while also upgrading old Soviet wares.

Little imagination is required to understand fears about a Persian Gulf arms race facilitated by U.S.-brokered normalization deals between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain as the results of an analogous arrangement play out in real time in the South Caucasus.

Of course, there are other complications for each of the parties involved. The nearly three-decade closure of Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, the country’s two longest frontiers, make Iran a necessary trade and transit link for Yerevan. The association with hostile Tehran naturally irks the Israelis. Conversely, Iran may have impeded Armenia’s ability to cultivate relations with Israel. Azerbaijani oil is also a factor, albeit one that may be less important as Israel continues exploring its own offshore energy reserves and switches to gas power in many areas. 

Despite all of this, Armenia now asserts that Israel may be halting arms sales to Azerbaijan after consultation between Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and his counterpart in Yerevan, Armen Sarkissian. It is not yet clear how and when the suspension will be implemented and whether Israeli defense contractors will seek to sidestep it if it is. Whatever happens, Azerbaijan’s response will test the depth of its relationship with Israel, just as the unfolding drama surrounding prospective American F-35 sales to the UAE will try the durability of newly public ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

Weapons sales help Israel punch above its weight in its foreign relations. The country plays an outsized role in the international arms market; its volume of defense exports is comparable to the United Kingdom’s. But this kind of diplomacy can have unforetold consequences as the dividends of peace actually mean making more instruments of war available. Israel’s connection with Azerbaijan and its fallout with Armenia are a reminder that a relationship that ultimately comes back to weapons sales can never be just business.