Israel Faces Pressure to Follow U.S. Armenian Genocide Move Despite Turkey Ties

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."

israel, jerusalem, march, armenia, genocide, flags
Armenians carry national flags during a march to commemorate the anniversary of the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, in Jerusalem, on April 23, ahead of President Joe Biden's announcement. Israel has acknowledged atrocities committed against Armenians and other minorities at the time but has not declared it a "genocide" even as the United States now has. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

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."

Andranik Israelyan, a Turkologist who formerly served in Armenia's Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries, provided insight into the Armenian perspective on Israeli hesitance.

"From the Armenian point of view it is very strange to see such a policy," Israelyan told Newsweek. "An average Armenian is always perplexed why people who are victims of a genocide find it hard to acknowledge others' tragedy."

But he saw potential change on the horizon in Israel.

"My opinion is that Israeli recognition is an upcoming development, but will depend on its relationship with Turkey and Azerbaijan," he said.

And major factors have come into play at home as well. As Netanyahu faces a new chorus of critics, Israelyan said there had been a "significant change in Israeli attitude to the issue." He argued that "Israeli society is nowadays more inclined towards recognizing the Armenian genocide."

To demonstrate this, Israelyan took note of the Israeli Knesset Committee on Education Culture and Sports decision in 2016 to recognize an Armenian Genocide. A number of nations have seen their legislatures take action on the issue and in some cases, like that of the U.S. Congress' 2019 vote, it preceded eventual movement on the executive level.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was among the nation's leading proponents for the move during his tenure as speaker of parliament, but he has avoided using the term "Armenian Genocide" since taking office in Netanyahu's government in 2014.

Still, Netanyahu's political opponents have continued to call for a new policy regarding Armenian Genocide recognition at a time of political deadlock in Israel.

One of Netanyahu's top rivals, center-right Yesh Atid leader and Knesset member Yair Lapid, called Biden's announcement "an important moral statement," vowing to "continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide; it is our moral responsibility as the Jewish state."

A spokesperson for Lapid reiterated this sentiment in statement sent to Newsweek and noted that the opposition leader has also proposed a bill in the Knesset toward this end.

"Yair Lapid believes that Never Again is a moral imperative which requires recognition of the past and a commitment to prevent atrocities in the future," the spokesperson said.

Left-wing Meretz Knesset member Tamar Zandberg also reacted to Biden's statement, saying "the time has come for Israel to also clean itself of political interests and act for the most basic justice and recognize the Armenian genocide" and that "the Jewish state cannot lend a hand to attempts to erase history."

Another leading opponent, center right-wing to right-wing New Hope head Gideon Sa'ar, has also expressed support for recognizing an Armenian Genocide in the past.

One former Labor Party member, Nachman Shai, traveled to Yerevan in 2015 as part of an Israeli delegation attending a ceremony marking the centennial of the massacres of 1915. Today, he still advocates for Israel to switch its position.

"Israel should reconsider its position," Shai told Newsweek. "We, especially the Jewish people, should recognize the genocide of the Armenian people in the First World War.
For years Israel has been running away from clearly and loudly stating that position, obviously because our close relations with Turkey, and later with Azerbaijan."

Shai, who is now a visiting professor at Duke University's Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, said the Biden administration's decision should pave the path for Israel to follow.

"The U.S.'s new position, just makes it even easier for us," he said, noting only that he would oppose the term "Armenian Holocaust" in lieu of "genocide" to describe the historic events.

"I would have expected the Government of Israel to come up with that statement," he added. "Even in today's real politics and cynicism, morals should come first."

israel, benjamin, netanyahu, turkey, recep, erdogan
Photos show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attending the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on November 19, 2017 and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the inauguration ceremony of Turkey's first automated urban metro line on the Asian side of Istanbul on December 15, 2017. Relations between the two men have fluctuated over throughout their long-running tenures in their respective governments, but tensions tend to prevail. RONEN ZVULUN/OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

In Washington, the head of one leading institution raising awareness on systematic atrocities joined others in drawing parallels between the experiences of the Jewish and the Armenian peoples. U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Director Sara J. Bloomfield welcomed Biden's move and emphasized the need for global recognition.

"Holocaust history teaches that an honest reckoning with the past is a prerequisite to understanding the present and building a better future," Museum said in a statement sent to Newsweek.

The U.S. National Holocaust Memorial has also classified as genocides the mass killings against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina's Srebrenica in 1995, against non-Arab minorities in Sudan's Darfur in the early 2000s, against Yezidis in Islamic State militant group (ISIS)-controlled Iraq in 2014 and against the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar in 2017.

The museum pointed out that the Armenian experience is central to our current understanding of what defines genocide.

In the midst of the Holocaust in 1944, Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin drew upon the events that befell the Armenians and other communities in the Ottoman Empire when he coined the term "genocide." The crime was first recognized as such under international law by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946.

As the international community continues to grapple with conflicting narratives 75 years later, Bloomfield urged countries across the world to come to terms with the past.

"Recognizing the full magnitude of the crimes committed against the Armenian people, even a century following the events, is important not only for the victims and their descendants," she said. "We know from watching Europe deal with the Holocaust and its legacy since 1945, just how important it is for all societies to openly acknowledge difficult national history."

This article has been updated to include statements by a spokesperson for Yesh Atid leader and Knesset member Yair Lapid and by former Israeli Labor Party Knesset member Nachman Shai.