The Knesset Should Go Ahead and Say the G-Word

The recent arrest of two Israelis in Turkey is a reminder that Israel has catered to Turkish sensitivies for too long.

November 19, 2021
Source: Bloomberg

By Zev Chafets

Last week, Turkish police arrested two Israeli tourists in Istanbul under suspicion that they were spies. A husband and wife, they were held in separate prisons and interrogated for taking pictures. The country’s interior minister announced that they would face Turkish justice, a chilling prospect.

Israel was indignant. “They are arrested for no reason,” Justice Minister Gideon Saar protested Tuesday. Israeli papers quoted travelers and Israeli residents in Turkey saying they feared being targeted. Then on Wednesday night the tourists were let go without explanation. The incident has sparked debate about whether often rocky Israeli-Turkish relations have suddenly grown chillier. And it comes just as a bill has been introduced to the Knesset that would see Israel recognize the Armenian genocide, a move sure to anger Turkey.

For a century, successive Turkish governments have sought to bury this gruesome genocide. And for a long time, the world seemed complicit. During the Cold War, Turkey, a member of NATO with its strategic location bridging Asia and Europe, was too important to antagonize over a forgotten massacre in a distant time.

But to the Armenian survivors and their descendants in the diaspora, the genocide remains vivid. Diaspora communities slowly organized and raised their voices. In this, they looked to the Jewish example after World War II.

In the meantime, the world got reintroduced to ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia. Democracies have become more sensitive to the issue of mass murder and, one by one, nations began to officially admit that the Turkish state (or rather its Ottoman precursor) was responsible for the Armenian genocide. In April, the United States, one of the last holdouts, joined the list of countries, which now numbers 31, that have labeled what happened in Turkey during World War a genocide.

Israel’s name on that list has, for reasons of realpolitik, been conspicuously absent. For many years, Turkey was the only Muslim country in the Middle East that accepted and recognized Israel. Before the hostile regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power, the two countries had intimate intelligence and strategic ties. The two countries remain trading partners.

Leaders from Ben Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu honored Turkey’s demand for silence on the Armenian issue, but there is no reason to continue to do so. Israel is a stronger nation in its own right now and has good relations with many Muslim and Arab nations as well as an enduring alliance with the United States. It is a major regional military power, with a per capita income that is more than five times greater than Turkey’s.

Armenian genocide recognition, once a pet project of feeble left-wing parties in Israel, is now mainstream. A day after Joe Biden officially recognized the genocide, Yair Lapid, then the head of the parliamentary opposition, echoed the president’s words. “I will continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide,” Lapid aid. “It is our moral duty as the Jewish State.”

Two months later, Lapid became Israel’s foreign minister and the leader of the most influential party in the governing coalition. He is slated to become prime minister in less than two years.

The incumbent prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has long been a supporter of truth telling on the Armenian issue. In 2018, he called on the Knesset to authorize “an official Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide committed by Turkey.”

The bill introduced in the Knesset this month calls for Israel not only to recognize the Armenian genocide but to declare April 24th an annual day of memorial. Surprisingly, the sponsors were six members of the right-wing Shas and Likud parties who are members of the parliamentary opposition.

It is possible that the bill is just a parliamentary tactic to embarrass Bennett and Lapid, who have not yet turned their fine words into action. But the initiative should be taken up by Bennett’s government, which controls the Knesset and could easily move the bill through committee to the floor and win a majority.

Israel will continue to be grateful to Erdogan for small favors. Business can continue as usual based on mutual interests. But those do not include Israeli complicity in the cover-up of a crime against a people that reminds us so much of ourselves.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.