America's Jewish and Armenian communities, linked by similar immigrant experiences and shared memories of genocide, have usually lobbied side by side in Washington's foreign policy battles to defend the interests of their respective homelands. That's what made the Nov. 18 dinner in the State Room of the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel such an eye-catching event. At the podium was a senior leader of Muslim Azerbaijan, recently at war with neighboring Armenia, praising prominent Jewish American organizations for supporting an end to seven-year-old U.S. economic sanctions on Azerbaijan--a centerpiece of the Armenian American agenda in Congress. "We now have a lobby in the United States and that is the Jewish community," said Ilham Aliyev, son of Azerbaijan's president and vice president of the Azeri oil company. "No matter how strong the Armenian lobby is, I think the Jewish one is stronger." In one of the more unusual realignments among foreign policy lobbies working Capitol Hill, six Jewish American groups decided early last summer to take on the influential Armenian Assembly of America to clear Azerbaijan's name in Congress and end sanctions imposed by Congress in 1992 at the urging of Armenian Americans. Spokesmen for the Jewish American groups say they are only upholding the strategic interests of Israel, which seeks to forge friendships and alliances with secular Muslim countries bordering its two principal enemies, Iran and Iraq. Jewish support for Azerbaijan dovetails with Israel's deepening security alliance with another secular Muslim state, Turkey, which itself has close linguistic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan. And while Jewish Israel has been busy bonding with Muslim Turkey and Azerbaijan, Christian Armenia has forged an even more unusual alliance with Islamic fundamentalist Iran. For Israel--and the United States--Iran is a major security threat; for Armenia, it is a friendly neighbor and major trading partner. The Armenian-Jewish split between two of the best-organized and financed Washington lobbies reflects the shake-up of alliances taking place among Middle East nations and their new-found friends in the Caucasus and Central Asia as a result of the Soviet Union's demise. Suddenly, Israel has been able to forge alliances with the two Muslim countries that Armenia regards as its principal enemies. Evidence of the falling-out surfaced last September during a two-hour House floor debate over a section of the 1992 Freedom Support Act that has prevented Azerbaijan from obtaining direct U.S. assistance at a time when Armenia has remained among the top U.S. aid recipients. In imposing sanctions seven years ago, Congress cited Azerbaijan's blockade of Armenia, which has continued despite a 1994 cease-fire between the two warring nations. Since then, the United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into Armenia but has limited assistance to Azerbaijan to humanitarian aid, despite lobbying by U.S. oil companies, which have their eyes on Azerbaijan's oil, on behalf of a more evenhanded policy. The six Jewish American groups helped Azerbaijan to obtain some relief, but the pro-Armenian lobby stymied the campaign led by Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to scrap the sanctions legislation altogether. Even 17 of the 23 Jewish members of the House were among the 231 who voted to keep the sanctions on Azerbaijan. "That should be shocking to the Jewish organizations," remarked Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly. "Those groups don't lose many issues in Washington, and they did this time." Officials of the Jewish American groups ascribe their defeat to a hasty, last-minute lobbying effort and say they have just begun mobilizing to generate grass-roots support within the Jewish American community for Azerbaijan. Vartian conceded that the rift has caused "a lot of consternation" on Capitol Hill because the two lobbies have never before found themselves in a situation where the interests of a third country, particularly a Muslim country, have become a "point of contention." "The intention was never to make this a battle," said Daniel S. Mariaschin, B'nai B'rith's director for public policy, referring to the struggle over U.S. sanctions on Azerbaijan. But, he added, "friends can have disagreements {and} you can't always march in lockstep." One Silent Israel Advocate The feud has caused a good deal of soul searching--and some division, although no significant resignations of members as yet--among Jewish American groups that decided only last June to take up the Azeri cause in Congress. Along with B'nai B'rith, they include the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; the American Jewish Committee; the Anti-Defamation League; the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the American Jewish Congress. But the Jewish American group that normally takes the lead in lobbying Congress on Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has decided to remain silent, calculating that it has more to lose by making an enemy out of the powerful Armenian Assembly than it stands to gain, according to sources close to its leadership. "No comment," replied Stephen Rosen, AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, when asked to explain why AIPAC was not joining the six other groups. Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, chastised the Jewish American groups for turning their backs on Armenia. "They should think very long and hard about the kind of oppression the Armenians have experienced, just like the Jewish people," he said, referring to their common histories as victims of genocide and a diaspora. Officials of Jewish American groups don't feel they are selling out old friends. "We certainly have no apologies for caring about Israel," said Mariaschin. Israel is seizing a unique historical opportunity to widen its circle of friends among secular Muslim nations and "that window will not be open forever," he added. The falling-out between these two ethnic lobbies would never have happened had the Soviet Union not disintegrated in 1991 and spun off 15 new countries, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, which wasted no time in going to war over the tiny Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. The split only widened after Israel's ongoing search for security led it in 1996 to forge an alliance with Turkey, Armenia's sworn enemy. The Israeli-Turkish rapprochement "really fundamentally changed strategic relationships in the Middle East," according to Barry Jacobs, the American Jewish Committee's assistant director for international affairs. The alliance not only bolstered Israel's military power against its Arab enemies but also gave it access to the Caspian Sea Muslim nations on Iran's northern and eastern borders, he said. "We said, we have to do something about this {and} our support for Turkey led us to Azerbaijan," Jacobs explained. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said it was enough for him to "just look at the map" to see how important Turkey and the Muslim countries on Iran's northern border were to Israel's strategic interests. "It's a way of containing Iran and Iraq," he said. Hoenlein was a member of a Jewish American delegation that visited Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, on Nov. 16 and spent six hours in meetings with Azeri President Heydar Aliyev. The delegation brought back to Washington several leaders of the Azeri Jewish community to help spread the word about its good treatment under the Aliyev government. Israel has opened embassies in Baku and in three other newly independent Muslim nations in Central Asia. Israeli companies are doing brisk business in the region, particularly in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The Armenian Presence The collapse of the Soviet empire also brought the United States and American oil and gas companies into the Caspian region for the first time. By November 1997, the Clinton administration was promoting oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian to Western Europe, with Azerbaijan serving as one central energy hub and Turkey another. As a result, the pro-Armenian lobby is pitted now not only against its traditional Jewish American friends, but also against the Clinton administration, which has called on Congress to lift the 1992 sanctions. So far, the Armenian lobby has held its own, despite representing a community of only 1 million Americans of Armenian descent, half of them in California and most of the others in only three states--New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. These are the same states that have large concentrations of American Jews, who number 6 million, more than a quarter of them in New York alone. In existence only four years now, the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues has become one of the most effective ethnic lobbies in the House, rallying 72 members in the past Congress and only slightly fewer in the new one. It has ensured that Congress regularly allocates more than $100 million annually to Armenia--despite that country's close alliance with Iran--ranking it fourth, in per-capita terms, among recipients of American assistance. Like many of its members, caucus co-chairman Porter is a strong supporter of both Israel and Armenia--and not happy about the conflict with the Jewish American lobby. Porter would like to see both groups working together to pressure the Clinton administration into playing a more active role to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, thus putting an end to their feuding on Capitol Hill. But the first attempt by the two groups to ease their differences only served to confirm them. On Dec. 21, five Armenian Assembly executives met in New York with representatives of five Jewish groups to seek common ground. Both sides were "polite" and expressed their "good intentions" toward each other, said Jacobs. But, he added, "there are clearly areas where we don't agree {and} we will continue to disagree on this specific issue." CAPTION: Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, is a supporter of both Israel and Armenia and is not happy about the conflict. ec