As Turkey ties sour, Knesset to debate Armenian genocide recognition

Issue to be brought to full plenum discussion after MKs back proposal by Meretz lawmaker; government mum on its position

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

In this undated photo, members of the Jerusalem Armenian community protest outside the Knesset, demanding that the State of Israel recognize the Armenian genocide. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
In this undated photo, members of the Jerusalem Armenian community protest outside the Knesset, demanding that the State of Israel recognize the Armenian genocide. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Knesset lawmakers on Wednesday voted to debate the recognition of the Armenian genocide in the parliament chamber, amid a nadir in ties with Turkey over deadly clashes on the Gaza border.

The proposal raised by Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg called for a plenum debate on whether the Jewish state should officially recognize the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks 103 years ago. It was supported by 16 lawmakers in the mostly empty plenum, with none opposed.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has long spoken out in favor of recognition, again expressed support for the measure. But he also voiced discomfort with public calls to recognize the genocide merely to irk Turkey and its bellicose leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Since when does Ankara tug at the strings of my morality?” he asked, upon introducing Zandberg’s motion.

“The Israeli Knesset should recognize the Armenian genocide because it is the right thing to do, the just thing to do,” Edelstein added.

Zandberg, similarly, called on all Israeli political parties to support recognition because “there are things that are above politics, and there are things that are above diplomacy.”

She derided efforts to use the recognition as a jab at Erdogan, saying “the disasters of another nation are not a political playing card.”

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bypassing the standard protocol, in which proposals are usually met with an official government response, the coalition did not dispatch a representative to counter Zandberg’s request for a Knesset debate on the issue.

The date of the plenum debate was not immediately announced.

The recognition of the Armenian genocide is raised every year in the Knesset, usually in the form of proposed legislation rather than a call for a debate, and has been knocked down by sitting governments annually since 1989, when MK Yair Tzaban first brought it to the floor.

Israel’s refusal thus far to formally recognize the Armenian slaughter as genocide is based on geopolitical and strategic considerations, primary among them its relations with Turkey, which vehemently denies that Ottoman Turks committed genocide. The United States has similarly avoided recognition of the mass killings over fears of angering Turkey.

Despite Israel’s official position, individual politicians have in the past expressed support for recognition of the atrocities.

In 2016, the Knesset’s Education Committee officially recognized the genocide and called on the government to follow suit.

President Reuven Rivlin, who was one of the most outspoken advocates for recognition of the genocide during his time as Knesset speaker, eschewed using the term during the centenary commemoration in 2015, disappointing Armenian leaders. He used it, however, several weeks earlier at a different event.

Israel’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide has thus far survived several debates in the Knesset and even efforts by a former education minister to add the topic to school curricula.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seen in a combination of photos created on April 1, 2018. (Ronen Zvulun and Ozan Kose/AFP)

Wednesday’s debate came as relations between Israel and Turkey soured dramatically in the aftermath of clashes last week on the Israel-Gaza border in which dozens of Palestinians were killed, leading to a diplomatic spat that saw the ambassadors and consuls general of both countries expelled or withdrawn to their respective countries.

Erdogan also engaged in a bitter Twitter exchange with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he accused of having “the blood of Palestinians” on his hands, while Netanyahu in return accused him of supporting Hamas and being a proponent of “massacres and terror.”

Also Wednesday, during a separate Knesset debate on Turkey, in another call likely to gall Erdogan, Deputy Diplomacy Minister Michael Oren, Likud MK Yoav Kisch and Meretz MK Mossi Raz separately called for the establishment of a Kurdish state. Prime Minister Netanyahu had expressed his support for Kurdish independence in September 2017.

Oren, in his remarks, described the current rift with Turkey as the “most severe” since Israel and Turkey signed a reconciliation agreement in June 2016, upgrading their diplomatic relationship after years of frosty ties worsened by a fatal melee between Turkish activists and IDF soldiers aboard a Gaza-bound ship in 2010.

Raphael Ahren, Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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