Israel Must Choose Better in Nagorno-Karabakh
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last Saturday, two rival ethnic groups staged a bloody brawl on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel has had its share of political violence lately, but this was not a clash between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, or supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a fight between Israeli Armenians and Azeris over Nagarno-Karabakh, a territory that Armenia and Azerbaijan are at war over.
Most people here have never heard of Nagarno-Karabakh and have no interest in who wins control of the long-disputed territory in the South Caucasus that sits within Azerbaijan but is Armenian populated and controlled. But a front of that distant war has now been opened here. It may -- and should -- force Israel to do make some difficult strategic and moral choices. And it could open some interesting opportunities.
For almost 30 years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been partners of convenience. Azerbaijan, a Shiite Muslim dictatorship, sells oil to the Jewish State, and buys advanced weapons. Armenia claims that these arms are being used by the Azeris to attack civilian targets in Nagarno-Karabakh.
Israel admits that this could be happening but says it can’t be held responsible for how the Azeris use the weapons they purchase. But it has an obligation under international law to halt further arms sales. This weak response reflects the fact that Israel gets more than oil from Azerbaijan. The country shares a border with Iran, Israel’s arch enemy. At the very least, that makes Baku an important source for intelligence gathering. There are also reports that it is a potential launching pad for the Israeli air force. That makes Azerbaijan a rare and valuable asset, one that Israel is not going to abandon.
Armenia has no such realpolitik value to Israel. But it has a powerful moral case that Israel cannot afford to ignore. Jews and Armenians are similar peoples. Both have reclaimed their sovereignty after centuries of diaspora and persecution. Both have restored their national independence. Armenia, like Israel two generations ago, is a nascent, struggling democracy.
The greatest similarity is, of course, the fact that Jews and Armenians were both victims of 20th century genocide. But instead of bringing them together, the mutual experience has become a point of contention. For decades, Israel has refused to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. Jerusalem is not willing to go beyond the euphemistic “mass killing” to describe Turkey’s systematic murder of more than 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.
Israel’s dissembling stems from its historic fear of offending Turkey, which adamantly denies it committed genocide. Going along with this fiction is a moral stain for Israel -- and an act of hostility towards Armenia.
Israel knows the power of victimization and has made the Holocaust a centerpiece of its diplomacy since 1948. The benefits are obvious. It has won Israel financial reparations from Germany and other European perpetrators, given Israel a freedom of action denied to other small countries and has been a moral trump card against Holocaust deniers like Iran and the Palestinians.
Israeli reticence to accord similar status to Armenia has led to chilly relations since the two countries recognized one another in 1991. But lately that seemed to be changing. Turkey is now blatantly antagonistic toward Israel. There is no reason for Jerusalem to continue to placate it.
In January, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian paid a historic visit to Israel. Nine months later, Armenia opened its first embassy in Tel Aviv. But the timing was terrible. Within two weeks, fighting in Nagarno--Karabakh erupted and the ambassador was recalled.
Arayik Harutyunyan, the de facto Armenian leader of Nagarno-Karabakh, put his own holocaust card on the table. He charged Israel with facilitating the Azeri murder of innocent civilians. “Of course [Israel] knows and continues to supply these weapons anyway,” he told a press conference. “And the Israeli authorities, which themselves survived genocide, are also responsible for this genocide.”
What is taking place in Nagarno-Karabakh is not a genocide. Israel is not the only supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan. That list includes Russian and Turkey. Still, the accusation stung. If the Israeli government protested, it was in an inaudible whisper.
It is unrealistic to imagine that Israel will be shamed into harming its relations with Azerbaijan. But it can, and should, make weapons sales conditional on a promise from the regime in Baku that these weapons won’t be used against civilians. It's not exactly in Israel's interest either to have its weapons fall into the hands of Syrian and Libyan fighters being sent by Turkey to support the Azeri effort.
And Israel should turn this into an opportunity to officially and publicly recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915 and apologize for taking so long. If that antagonizes Turkey, which is now openly hostile toward both Armenia and Israel, so much the better. It would not take much pressure from Washington to encourage this course of action.
Israel and Armenia are natural allies. They understand one another’s predicament as small democracies in a sea of Islamic dictatorships. Israel might even play a role in facilitating a peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even if that’s not possible, Israel can help Armenia leverage its own moral capital in the service of its national interests; and perhaps join together to combat genocide in other parts of the world.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.