U.S. and Israel Should Recognize the Armenian Genocide

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week Turkey recalled its ambassadors to America and Israel. That decision came in response to Israeli forces killing 60 Palestinian protestors attempting to cross the Gaza border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israeli actions a “genocide” on Turkish TV; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shot back on twitter: “I suggest that he not preach morality to us.”

Erdogan’s attack has opened an unanticipated window of opportunity, both in Washington and Jerusalem to break a decades-long refusal to join historians and many governments in recognizing a real genocide that Turkey continues to deny -- that against Armenian Christians.

This, of course, is history. The genocide took place during World War I. It was carried out by an Ottoman Turkish caliphate which is long gone. But in the Middle East, history matters. Turkey has made it a policy to baldly deny the genocide, and demand acquiescence in this lie as the price of good relations with Israel and other countries.

In 2011, when France recognized the genocide, Erdogan accused the French of doing even worse in Algeria. Five years later, when Germany followed suit, Erdogan again lashed out. “Look at your own history,” he instructed the government of Angela Merkel. “You are proud of having burned people alive in ovens.”

Despite such rhetoric, almost 30 countries have now officially classified the mass murder of Armenians as “genocide.” Israel and the United States are not among them.

For years, the Armenian community in America has petitioned the government to officially recognize the genocide. U.S. presidents, acting on expert advice and the pressure of the Turkish lobby, have refrained doing so. This year, on “Armenian Remembrance Day,” President Trump issued a statement to mark the occasion that managed to omit the words “Turkey” and “genocide.” Less than a month later, Erdogan rewarded Trump’s kow-towing by labeling him an accomplice to what he called Israel's genocidal actions against Palestinians. The best answer Trump could give now would be to demonstrate American leadership by officially recognizing the Armenian genocide.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s outburst and the harassment of the Israeli ambassador on his way home from Ankara, have lit fires in Jerusalem. Two members of Knesset, the ruling Likud Party’s Amir Ohana and Itzik Shmuly from the opposition Zionist Unity Party, have introduced legislation to end Israel’s embarrassing silence on the Armenian issue.

That silence had been a matter of sheer pragmatism. Once, when Turkey was a secular, pro-Western country, Israel relied on it as a strategic partner in a hostile Arab neighborhood. That rationale no longer holds. Israel can now take care of itself. And Erdogan, an aspiring caliph, is now an enemy. Shortly after he accused Israel of mass murder, he received a call from his new best friend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, praising him in the name of Islamic solidarity for standing up to the “Big and Little Satan”; that is, the U.S. and Israel.

In Israel, circumstances have altered consciences. Truth is now in style. “It’s not too late to do justice,” says Knesset member Ohana. “When Hitler presented Wehrmacht officers with his plan for mass extermination in Poland, including women and children, he soothed the concerns about the world’s reaction by saying, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the Armenians?’ For that reason alone we should have already officially recognized this genocide.” 

At least five senior ministers in the governing coalition have come out for measures that would punish Turkey and recognize its genocide. So have the speaker of the Knesset and the heads of the major opposition parties. It is hard to recall such trans-partisan enthusiasm.  

Still, nothing will change without Netanyahu’s say-so. No legislation can pass without his consent and no new diplomatic policy can be adopted either, as he is also Israel’s foreign minister.

Netanyahu is a strategic thinker, and Turkey, like it or not, is a player in the regional game of thrones now underway. He will officially recognize the Armenian genocide only if he thinks it fits his purposes. That may be the wrong reason, but for once in this debate, for both Israel and the U.S., raw national interest and moral obligation are perfectly aligned: In a war against fanatics, truth is a powerful weapon.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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