Israel risks new Turkish ire with recognition of Armenian genocide

December 26, 2011
Source: The New York Times

By Ethan Bronner

JERUSALEM — The Israeli parliament on Monday held its first public debate on whether to commemorate the Turkish genocide of Armenians a century ago, an emotionally resonant and politically fraught topic for Israel, founded on the ashes of the Holocaust and trying to salvage frayed ties with Turkey.

The session resulted from a rare confluence of political forces — a decades-long effort by some on the left to get Israel to take a leading role in bringing attention to mass murder combined with those on the right angry at the way Turkey has criticized Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

Previous efforts to declare one day a year a memorial for "the massacre of the Armenian people" have failed, and hearings on the topic were restricted to closed sessions of the Parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committee because of concerns over Turkey’s reaction, especially at a time when relations were friendlier.

But with Turkey having recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the hearing was moved this year to the education committee where sessions are open. The debate was carried on live television.

"As a people and as a country we stand and face the whole world with the highest moral demand that Holocaust denial is something human history cannot accept," Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Parliament, who has favored official recognition of the genocide, said in his testimony. "Therefore we cannot deny the tragedy of others."

More than 15 countries have officially labeled as genocide the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the chaos surrounding World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Its denial is a crime in Switzerland and Slovenia.

The lower house of the French parliament just approved legislation requiring a fine of nearly $60,000 and a year in jail for denying it, prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador from Paris and cancel permission for French military planes to use Turkish airspace and French naval vessels to enter Turkish harbors.

Turkey acknowledges atrocities occurred but without any specific death toll and says the killings were not genocide but part of the inevitable tragedy of war.

At Monday’s hearing, attended by an official of the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem and members of Israel’s Armenian minority, some advocates of commemorating the massacre said their efforts had nothing to do with politics or with the Turkey of today. Rather, they said, the goal was to face history, educate young Israelis about genocide and publicly assert the need to prevent such acts.

But officials from the Foreign Ministry said relations with Turkey today were fragile and that passing such a resolution could have bad strategic consequences. They did not take a stand on the commemoration but said the discussion could not be disentangled from regional developments.

After Israel invaded Gaza three years ago to stop rocket fire by Palestinian militants, Turkey expressed anger. A year and a half ago, the Israeli navy stopped a Turkish-sponsored flotilla from going to Gaza, killing nine activists aboard. Turkey demanded an apology and compensation and when Israel refused, ties were downgraded. Otniel Schneller, a parliamentarian from the opposition Kadima Party and himself the son of Holocaust survivors, spoke against the commemoration, saying the region was growing more hostile to Israel in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings and that Israel had to be pragmatic.

"This is the time when we must rehabilitate our relations with Turkey because this is an existential issue for us," he said. "We have to integrate into the Middle East. Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country."

The politics of the debate have been head-spinning. The session was launched by the combined efforts of Alex Miller of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and Zahava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz party. Enthusiastic advocates include many members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party — yet Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, telephoned Mr. Rivlin of Parliament on Sunday and tried to get the session canceled.

Ori Orbach, a parliamentarian from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, challenged the government’s concerns about what Turkey might do and spoke for many conservatives here.

"How many times can they recall their ambassador?" he asked rhetorically. "What can Turkey do to us? It’s our duty to teach what happened to the Armenian people."

Many Jews argue for the unique nature of the Nazi Holocaust and efforts to view it in the context of other genocides have sometimes met with resistance. But Yehuda Bauer, a longstanding historian of the Holocaust, spoke at Monday’s session in strong support of commemorating the Armenians.

Later, by telephone, he said that the Nazi Holocaust was unprecedented in that it was the most extreme and thorough form of genocide so far in history — the aim was to kill every single Jew everywhere in the world even though the Jews had no army, no government and their property had already been taken. Still, he noted, the Armenians lost two thirds of their people in the killings that started in 1915 and the Jews only one third in World War II. The Armenian genocide, he said, deserved wide discussion and education.

"As Jews, we have a special moral obligation and in my book that comes before any political consideration," he said. He urged the study of the Armenian genocide throughout Israeli schools and naming April 24, when mass killings of Armenians began in 1915, as a date when Parliament would mark the deaths.

The committee took no action, agreeing to meet again.