December 26, 2011
By Izzy Lemberg
Jerusalem (CNN) -- In a move that could further erode already soured relations with Turkey, Israeli lawmakers on Monday debated whether to establish an official day marking what Armenia describes as a genocide 96 years ago.
Armenian groups and many scholars argue that starting in 1915, Turks committed genocide, when more than a million ethnic Armenians were massacred in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
Modern day Turkey which emerged after the collapse the Ottoman Empire, has always denied a genocide took place arguing instead that hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians and Muslim Turks died in intercommunal violence around the bloody battlefields of World War 1.
The Knesset committee debate, which had been scheduled for months, was made up of an ideological cross section of political parties and allied some right and left-wing legislators in support of creating an Armenian memorial day.
Zehava Gal-On of the left wing Meretz party declared, "It is a moral question of recognizing the Armenian genocide, and it should not be based on political considerations."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said "an open debate on the issue based on facts and figures was welcome" but stressed that the sensitive topic should not be used to make political statements or be divorced from the current geo-political context.
Last week the French National assembly passed a law making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. Turkey reacted furiously, recalling its ambassador from Paris, denying landing rights to French military aircraft and forbidding the docking of French ships in Turkish ports.
The issue of the Armenian genocide has posed a diplomatic and moral dilemma for Israel which sees itself as the keeper of the memory of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were the victims of a mass genocide. It has had to weigh this obligation with the more practical political consideration of maintaining stable economic and security relations with Turkey.
But as relations between the two countries have deteriorated over the last three years, there have been increased calls from some in the Israeli political establishment for the government to take a more aggressive stance on the Armenian issue.
"In the past we were always told that we cannot discuss this subject because of our good relationship with Turkey; now we are told that we cannot discuss this because of our bad relationship with Turkey," said Aryeh Eldad of the right wing National Union party.
Turkish-Israeli relations have been on the rocks since 2009, when, in response to repeated rocket fire, Israel launched a military offensive against militant Islamist political party Hamas which controls Gaza. Ties between the one-time allies deteriorated further in 2010 after Israeli commandos seized a Turkish ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian supplies. The ship was part of a flotilla seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. During the seizure nine Turkish nationals were killed by the Israeli commandos.
Members of the committee came under pressure from the Foreign Ministry as well as the Prime Minister's Office not to have a vote at this time, according to some Knesset members. It appears the requests were heeded as the meeting broke up without a vote or a date for further discussions.