Between morality and strategy

For Israeli leaders, recognition of the mass murder of Armenians by Turkey during World War I was always a matter of balancing our moral obligations against our special relationship with Turkey.

March 9, 2010
Source: The Jerusalem Post (Israel)

By Oded Eran

Last week the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed H. Res. 252, calling upon the president to accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide. The vote was close: 23 for, 22 against. All six Jewish members of the committee voted for the resolution.

This was not always the case.

More than 20 years ago I was involved in the effort to prevent passage of the Armenian Resolution in Congress. It continues to haunt me, though, and the vote last week doesn't make me feel better. Statements such as a genocide is a genocide is a genocide are true, but do not make the decision-making easier for our political leaders who need to wrestle with immediate national challenges to the country. They need to walk a fine line between current interests and the historical and moral component in our Jewish DNA.

TWO DECADES ago when, as a member of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, I approached members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I was convinced of the strategic importance of Turkey to Israel, and the long-term interests of that relationship. Nothing has altered this conviction, but recent months have weakened the rapport. Turkish-Israeli relations are in free fall. Turkey's current political leaders may be justified in feeling offended by the matter-of-fact approach of their Israeli counterparts; former prime minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara 72 hours before the start of Operation Cast Lead.

He could not, of course, reveal anything about the impending operation, and so he put his hosts in an awkward position. Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan then vented his fury by walking out of a joint panel with President Shimon Peres at the Davos Conference last January. A few months later, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government decides to walk away from talks with Syria started by Olmert via Turkish mediation“ a legitimate decision, but probably insufficiently explained to the Turkish government.

Israel's concerns with the recent direction of Turkey's foreign policy is equally understandable. Frequent trips by Turkish political leaders to Damascus and Teheran, concluded by mutual agreements and understandings, are a cause for concern. So are the recent manifestations of anti-Semitism in Turkey, which are in stark contrast to its long record“ more than 500 years long“ of saving Jews in dire circumstances.

In itself, the Foreign Affairs Committee vote for a nonbinding resolution is not seriously damaging. However, according to Turkish views, the act comes in addition to a continuous disregard by the US, EU and Israel for Turkey's sensitivities and interests.

It is now clear that a battle is ensuing in Turkey over its soul and destiny. It is for the Turkish people to decide the direction they wish to take, but the actions and decisions of the outside world have a significant bearing.

IT IS not too late for a serious reassessment of the approach to be taken toward Turkey. Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was well aware of the conflict between the moral aspects and the strategic interests. In opening the debate last week, he remarked that "the vast majority of experts"...agree that the tragic massacres of the Armenians constitute genocide."

He later added, The Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship, and indeed perhaps there will be some consequences.

And yet Berman added his conviction that in the long-term, Turks will accept responsibility and the process will strengthen US-Turkey relations. He urged his colleagues to vote for the resolution.

Berman may be right, but I am glad I didn't have to try to convince him he could equally be wrong. Even if his research of the moral and historical background is admirable, Turkey is confronted by such resolutions in the US Congress, with European Union foot-dragging in the accession negotiations, and an insensitive attitude from Israel. There is indeed a danger of an Ankara-Damascus-Teheran axis forming and further destabilizing the Middle East.

The writer is director of the Institute for National Security Studies. He served as ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.