Israeli politicians have called on the country to formally recognize the Armenian genocide amid a diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey. But the move has drawn criticism that it risks turning the genocide issue into an unseemly political football.
On May 16, two members of the Israeli Knesset submitted legislation to recognize the genocide. “This historical injustice should have been recognized long ago,” one of them, Itzik Shmuli, said, Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz wrote. “Petty politics with the Turks have proven ineffective. We certainly won’t be preached to by the barbaric sultan, whose country is responsible for enormous war crimes and who himself is still bombing innocent Kurds.”
The new recognition push comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has strongly criticized Israel's violent suppression of protests in Gaza. That led to a diplomatic spat, and Israel recalled its ambassador from Ankara.
Israel's failure to recognize the Armenian genocide stands out particularly in light of the fact that Israel itself was formed as a result of the Jews' own genocide; Adolf Hitler even famously invoked the Armenian genocide as he prepared the Holocaust.
In the past, close diplomatic and military ties with Turkey – which continues to deny that the massacres of Armenians during World War I amounted to a genocide – have prevented Israel from recognizing the genocide. “Simply, Turkish tank deals trumped the moral and historical obligation of genocide recognition,” wrote Louis Fishman, a historian at Brooklyn College who frequently writes on Israel-Turkey issues, in 2016.
But ties with Israel have frayed under Erdoğan, raising the possibility that its stance on the genocide could change.
“Once the Kurd-murderer from Ankara chose to side with the murderous Hamas regime and slander Israel Defense Forces soldiers, who defend all of us, and to expel and humiliate Israeli diplomats in Turkey, the time has come to recognize [the Armenian genocide] not just historically but politically,” said Amir Ohana, who submitted the legislation along with Shmuli.
The Knesset voted down a similar bill in February; the government disapproved of the legislation “in light of its complexity and diplomatic repercussions, and because it has a clear political connection,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
It's not clear if enough has changed between Turkey and Israel to change that calculation. Regardless, Israel's back and forth on the issue has drawn criticism among both Israelis and Armenians.
“I don’t think that this is the right way to do it. If we want to make a decision like this, it should be about the matter itself. Doing it as a punishment for the Turks doesn’t respect the matter. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to do this,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in a radio interview.
“Israeli schools regularly teach about the Armenian Genocide and in Hebrew it is a commonly used term-using same word as Holocaust (Shoah); however, using it as a political tool undermines its historical significance, and simply is an ugly act,” Fishman tweeted after the new legislation was submitted.
Israel is far from the only country to politicize the issue of Armenian genocide recognition. In the United States, for example, Armenian-American lobbying groups are not shy about trying to advance the cause of genocide recognition using unrelated controversies involving Turkey. Russian lawmakers introduced a bill to criminalize Armenian genocide denial on the day after Turkish air defense units shot down a Russian plane on the border with Syria.
But Israel has been singled out by Armenians for its particularly cynical use of the genocide issue.
“Israeli Lawmakers Play the ‘Genocide Card’ Again,” read one headline in the newspaper Asbarez. “Every time the Turkish regime does something to anger Israel, the Jewish state’s politicians and members of parliament threaten Ankara with the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, furthering their cowardice as a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust,” Asbarez editor Ara Khachatourian wrote in 2017, when Israel last debated the issue.
“It’s high time that Armenia’s foreign ministry publicly declares that it’s no longer acceptable for Israel to use the Genocide as a bargaining chip to achieve its goals. Israel should either recognize the Genocide or table the issue,” wrote commentator Stepan Danielyan on the news website Hetq. “Cynicism and immorality in politics must have borders.”
Turkey and Armenia are not the only interested actors, however: Also watching closely is Azerbaijan, which continues to maintain close ties with Israel and which looks askance at any sign of improving Armenia-Israel ties.
“Shmuli is a political dilettante and he doesn't understand the delicacy of this issue, which is extremely sensitive for Azerbaijan,” said Yosef Shagal, a Baku-born Israeli politician who advocates for better ties with Azerbaijan. “After all, recognition of the genocide plays exactly into Erdoğan's hands. … Erdoğan has taken a decisive course for a Cold War with Israel, and recognition of the genocide would become yet another good argument for the Turkish president to convince the Turkish and Azerbaijani publics of the 'hostile intentions of the Zionist regime,'” Shagal said in an interview with Israeli media, as reported the Azerbaijani news site haqqin.az.
Shmuli argued that Azerbaijan has nothing to worry about. “In Azerbaijan they should understand that this doesn't have anything to do with them,” he told an Israeli radio interview, also as reported by haqqin.az. “After all in Baku they see and understand the scale of the political war that Erdoğan has unleashed against Israel. He hasn't left us any choice.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.