Israel Still Does Not Recognize Armenian Genocide
Genocide non-recognition not that big a deal when it's in Israel's national interest
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure to ignore protests by Turkey and follow U.S. President Joe Biden in declaring the mass killings of Armenians and other minority groups a century ago a genocide.
Biden’s historic genocide recognition made the United States the 30th country in the world to classify as such the ethnic cleansing that experts estimate killed a million Armenians and hundreds of thousands of other minorities, including Assyrians and Greeks, at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The decision immediately put the U.S. at odds with NATO ally Turkey, the modern successor to the Ottoman Empire. Ankara acknowledges that there were widespread killings amid clashes at the time, but denies that it was part of a systematic campaign that qualifies as genocide.
The move also put the spotlight on another U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel. Despite the country’s intrinsic ties to the systematic massacre of more than six million Jews and other minorities in the Holocaust during World War II, Israel has not recognized an Armenian Genocide.
Today, it still stops short of doing so.
“The State of Israel recognizes the tragedy and terrible suffering of the Armenian people,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “At this time in particular, it is our responsibility, and that of other countries in the world, to ensure that such events are not repeated.”
While Israel has extended its sympathy to those killed and displaced during the event, Netanyahu’s reluctance to take the next step has spurred calls for a new approach that more closely resembled that of the U.S., even from some of Israel’s most ardent supporters.
“While some U.S. leaders, most notably Barack Obama, talked about using the ‘g word’— genocide—in referring to the Armenian tragedy, in the end they all blinked when faced with Turkey’s intense pushback,” American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “That’s what makes President Joe Biden’s decision, which the American Jewish Committee warmly welcomed, all the more significant. He didn’t compromise on truth for the sake of political expediency.”
AJC, an influential Jewish advocacy organization that predates even the mass killings and displacements in question, “has also encouraged Israel to consider the American step,” he said.
Harris said it should be done, even if it came at the cost of fueling further tensions with a powerful regional player.
“It’s not been an easy call for Jerusalem, since Ankara plays hardball, and has made it crystal clear that any such move could trigger a costly reaction affecting core Israeli interests,” he said. That’s far from easy to dismiss or sideline.”
“Nonetheless, as a country where the genocide against the Jews is seared into the national consciousness, can Israel afford to avoid recognizing the same Armenian reality?” Harris asked. “When values and interests collide for any country, the latter usually win out.”
“On this issue, in Israel’s case,” he added, “perhaps it will eventually produce a different result.”
Relations between Israel and Turkey today are already severely strained. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often railed against Netanyahu, and has voiced consistent support for the right of return for Palestinians who themselves were forcefully displaced from lands also claimed by Israel during the country’s 1948 establishment.
But relations between the two countries haven’t always been hostile. Just a year after Israel came into existence, Turkey was the first majority-Muslim nation to recognize it. Ties between the two countries fluctuated with the tumultuous tides of Middle East politics throughout the following decades, but saw a marked improvement through the turn of the 21st century, with Turkey emerging as Israel’s closet regional partner.
But the relationship became strained as tensions in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip erupted into a series of wars. Turkey condemned Israeli operations across the tiny coastal enclave. In one 2010 incident, 10 Turkish citizens—one of them a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen—were killed when Israeli troops raided a flotilla of civilian ships seeking to break the Israel-imposed blockade on Gaza.
Over the past decade, the situation has only worsened. In spite of sporadic attempts at reconciliation, the two powers find themselves on opposite ends of two camps locked in an emerging geopolitical contest in the Mediterranean region. Israel has recently shored up ties with Turkey’s historic rival Greece and more closely aligned itself with Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates, while Turkey has sought to expand its footprint across lucrative maritime gas fields off the coast of Libya.
And while Israel has managed to make inroads across the Arab World over the past year with a set of deals that normalized ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, the country remains deeply unpopular in the region. A study published last year by Qatar’s Doha Institute showed a mere 6% average of support for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel among 13 Arab populations polled.
Erdogan, on the other hand, has emerged as an important leader. He ranked ahead of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in five countries surveyed by the polling project Arab Barometer: Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
In Libya, where Turkey has backed an internationally recognized government against an influential military leader supported by the Egypt-France-UAE bloc, Erdogan was seen as second to the Saudi royal in a tight race among the three leaders listed in the survey.
Only two Arab countries, Lebanon and Syria, have fully recognized an Armenian Genocide.
Turkey, meanwhile, continues to actively campaign against the use of the term, and has similarly beckoned Israel not to shift its stance.
“If there is one country in the whole world which understands the absolute need to refrain from politicizing the use of the term ‘genocide,’ it is probably Israel,” the Turkish embassy in Washington said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “Having suffered the horrors of Holocaust, Israel and Jews all around the world know too well that passing political judgments as such on historical events does neither serve the commemoration of the sufferings of the past nor help prevent the repeat of these crimes.”
“On the contrary,” the embassy added, “it undermines the weight and importance of the term “genocide” in disrespect of those who actually suffered from this appalling crime.”
Ankara argues the debate over what really happened remains ongoing.
“We cannot speak of the motives of the Israeli government, but it is only natural to think that they do not take it lightly the use of the term ‘genocide,'” the Turkish embassy said. “This should be particularly so given that none of the conditions required for the use of this term for the events of 1915 are met, including the lack of a decision by a competent international court.”
The embassy highlighted decisions adopted by the French Constitutional Council in 2012 and 2017 and by the European Court of Human Rights in 2015 and 2017, that “clearly established that events of 1915 constitute an issue of legitimate historical debate.”
The embassy also pointed out Turkey’s involvement in promoting Holocaust awareness, including by co-sponsoring the 2005 U.N. General Assembly resolution that established January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“As to Holocaust, on the other hand, safeguarding the memory of this horrific crime and protecting it from the shameful attacks of denialism and distortion is of utmost importance for us,” the embassy said.
The embassy also reiterated Turkey’s criticism of Biden’s decision last week, which it claimed did more harm than good.
“We hope that the entire international community continues to remember this dreadful chapter of the history of mankind with due respect and refrains from exploiting the term “genocide” for narrow political considerations, as President Biden did on April 24 this year,” the embassy said, “which only weakens the importance of this term and disrespects the memory of the millions of people who lost their lives as a result of the genocides perpetrated in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Srebrenica.”
For Israel, there’s also the additional question of its growing ties with Azerbaijan, a close Turkish partner that fought against Armenia over contested territory last year in an explosive conflict that saw Baku employ Israeli drones that devastated Armenian forces, a campaign that Yerevan likened to a continuation of an Armenian Genocide. Azerbaijan, which neighbors both Turkey and top Israeli foe Iran, has proven a key partner for Israel in defense and energy.
Armenia rejects the position taken by Turkey and Azerbaijan, and argues that countries acknowledging the weight of past human rights abuses was key to preventing new violations on such a scale.
“Armenia condemns the denialistic policy which aims at justifying the Armenian Genocide and preparing grounds for new crimes against humanity,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “The strong position of the international community on condemnation of genocides is an important prerequisite for truth and historical justice, as well as prevention of massive human rights violation.”