Analysis'This should not be a zero-sum competition over victimhood'

Why Israel won’t follow Biden’s lead and recognize Armenian genocide

Turkey is weak diplomatically and economically, and won’t retaliate, but for Israel, strategic interests still trump moral declarations

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli activists calling for the government's recognition of the Armenian genocide in front of the Turkish consulate in Jerusalem, April 24, 2012 (courtesy Combat Genocide Association)
Israeli activists calling for the government's recognition of the Armenian genocide in front of the Turkish consulate in Jerusalem, April 24, 2012 (courtesy Combat Genocide Association)

US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide on Saturday elicited a predictably angry response from Turkey. However, Turkey is in no position to meaningfully retaliate. Under pressure at home and abroad, Ankara is not about to back out of NATO or close down US bases on its territory.

But despite Turkey’s vulnerable state, Israel is not about to follow Biden’s lead, prioritizing strategic interests over moral declarations.

Armenians have long sought international recognition of the 1915-1917 killings by the Ottoman Empire, which reportedly left some 1.5 million of their people dead, as a genocide. Turkey — the Ottoman Empire’s successor state — strongly rejects the allegation that the massacres, imprisonment and forced deportation of Armenians from 1915 amounted to a genocide.

With the US decision, 30 countries – primarily in Europe and South America – now recognize the Armenian Genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute in Washington, DC.

US President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, in Washington, April 7, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

To many observers, it was not a surprise that Biden took this step.

According to Samantha Power, who served as UN ambassador under former president Barack Obama, she expected her boss to recognize the genocide on its 100th anniversary in 2015. Though Pope Francis had just taken a step in that direction, referring to the slaughter of Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Obama did not want to risk losing access to bases in Turkey with the war against the Islamic State terror group still ongoing. During a 100th-anniversary memorial mass at the Washington National Cathedral, Power tweeted Saturday, then-vice president Biden told Power that he would recognize the genocide if he were ever in the position to do so.

Khatchig Mouradian, a scholar on genocide at Columbia University and editor of The Armenian Review, said that the US had been advancing toward recognition for the past two decades, moving from questioning the veracity of the crime to acknowledging that it was indeed genocide.

US Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, August 24, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer, Presidential Press Service Pool via AP)

“When US relations with Turkey hit a low point in 2019, the House and the Senate overwhelmingly voted for resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide,” Mouradian pointed out. “It was only a matter of time before the executive branch followed suit. President Biden adhered to his campaign promise to finally deliver that recognition.”

Many believe that the often hostile relationship between Turkey and Israel under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan left Ankara without the support of pro-Israel groups in Washington. “This is the negative effect of the deteriorating Turkey-Israel relations on Turkish foreign policy,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv.

The Turkish response

Turkey has always reacted furiously in its official rhetoric to accusations of genocide. It acknowledges that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died during World War I, but argues there were far fewer victims than most scholars claim, and denies any intention by Ottoman authorities to carry out a genocidal campaign against Armenians.

The Turkish position is rooted in historical pride, said Cohen. “Turkey under Erdogan is very proud of its Ottoman past. If the Armenian genocide is internationally recognized like the Jewish Holocaust, then it will be a huge stain on the perception of Turkish history.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, walks with the co-presidents of the Co-ordination Council of Armenian organizations of France (CCAF) Mourad Franck Papazian, left, and Ara Toranian during the annual dinner of the Co-ordination Council of Armenian organizations of France (CCAF) on February 5, 2019, in Paris. (Ludovic Marin, pool via AP)

Many countries have refrained from recognizing the genocide out of fear of the Turkish response, which often involves recalling its ambassador for a period of time. That was Ankara’s reaction in 2011 when the French National Assembly passed a bill making it illegal to deny the Armenian Genocide. It also recalled its ambassador to the Vatican when Pope Francis used the word genocide during a 2015 mass marking the 100th anniversary of the slaughter, and its ambassador to Germany after the Bundestag passed a resolution calling the murder of Armenians a genocide in 2016.

Erdogan is unlikely to take that step against the US. “Ankara has tried to play down the importance of Biden’s genocide recognition in recent weeks, likely in an effort to avoid a major diplomatic confrontation,” Mouradian explained.

Turkey, which finds itself facing a dizzying array of challenges, doesn’t need to add a bitter diplomatic fight with the US to its list of troubles.

Turkey’s regional rivals Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel joined together in the EastMed Gas Forum, and have conducted joint military exercises. Ankara also faces worsening ties with Europe. Erdogan, who has stoked Islamist sentiment, infuriated French and EU officials by stating that President Emmanuel Macron needs “mental treatment” for condemning the beheading of a French teacher who showed a picture of Prophet Muhammad.

Refugees have also been an ongoing sticking point, with Erdogan threatening to let refugees across the border into Greece if the EU does not keep its end of a 2016 refugee deal. EU leaders have also criticized Turkey for human rights abuses.

At the same time, Turkey faces dire economic challenges. The Turkish lira had been in decline while inflation rose even before the COVID-19 pandemic. These problems took on new dimensions once the virus hit: food prices skyrocketed as the lira lost 30 percent against the dollar.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, US President Donald Trump, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, background, pose during a photo for NATO leaders in Hertfordshire, England, December 4, 2019. (Peter Nicholls, Pool Photo via AP)

Erdogan has managed to reverse some of these trends, but the government will have to continue to invest significant sums into health care and social services to deal with the coronavirus and its aftereffects. Sustained economic growth was the key to Erdogan’s popularity among the Turkish working class as prime minister, and he faces a long road back to prosperity.

Even worse for Erdogan, the US is now governed by Biden, who has had an acrimonious relationship with the Turkish leader for years. Understanding that he is in a bind, Erdogan has been trying to forge more constructive relations with its neighbors and with regional and world powers.

“Erdogan is trying to mend the fences with Joe Biden,” Cohen said. “In order to do that, he launched a new rapprochement not only with the United States, but also with the United States’ allies, meaning Israel and the European Union.”

This desire limits the severity of the Turkish response.

“Because of Turkey’s current weakness in terms of its troubled relations with many other international actors, its ability to react is limited,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “And if it does take drastic action – like preventing access to the base at Incirlik or threatening to leave NATO – this is a double-edged sword and will ultimately cause more damage to themselves.”

Thousands of Armenian children were murdered by Turkish forces in the genocide during World War I (public domain)

So far, the Turkish response has been limited to harshly worded tweets. “We reject and denounce in the strongest possible terms the statement of the US regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on 24 April,” tweeted Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The US decision “will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship,” the statement continued.

“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past,” tweeted Foreign minister Mevlut Causoglu. “Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”

The Turkish response is also tied to Turkish domestic politics, said Cohen.

Erdogan’s ruling AK Party forged an electoral alliance in 2019 with the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP in Turkish), which sealed his victory in the presidential election. AKP popularity has been in decline in recent years over serious economic challenges, fraying ties with the US and Europe, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The MHP wants to ban Kurdish parties, but Erdogan relies on Kurdish support to stay in power. He cannot risk losing the MHP either, and the party expects a strong rhetorical response at the very least to accusations that the modern Turkish state is rooted in a genocide.

US Air Force airmen walk toward fighter jets after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, December 15, 2015. (AP Photo)

“Erdogan cannot accept such a statement,” Cohen stressed.

Still, argued Cohen, in the short term there would be no further deterioration in US-Turkey ties. That is, unless Armenian-Americans pursue Turkey in American courts in light of the genocide recognition, demanding compensation for crimes committed against their ancestors.

“Turkey will not retaliate immediately,” he said. “But in case the recognition has concrete ramifications against Turkey, then Ankara will have to do something to show its constituency that it is fighting back.”

“US Federal acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide may… have direct implications on US foreign policy as well as on US courts that have in the past dismissed lawsuits seeking reparations for the crime based, in part, on the lack of Federal affirmation,” Mouradian noted. “That argument will now be off the table.”

If Turkey finds itself in that situation, it could reopen its playbook from 1975, when it shut down US military bases in the country. The drastic measure was taken in retaliation for an American arms embargo implemented after Turkey intervened militarily in Cyprus.

Commiserating over genocide denial

For Armenians around the world, US recognition constitutes an important step toward justice, Mouradian said. But Israel still has not recognized the genocide, and is not likely to in the foreseeable future.

The Foreign Ministry on Saturday said it recognized the “terrible suffering and tragedy of the Armenian people,” but stopped short of recognizing the massacres as a genocide.

“In these days in particular, we and the nations of the world have the responsibility to ensure that events like this do not again occur,” it said in a statement.

Armenians marched to their death by Turkish forces during World War I (public domain)

Many argue that Israel’s national security and economic interests should trump the moral imperative of recognizing the genocide of another nation, even for Israel with its intimate and inseparable bonds with the experience of the Holocaust.

“I think we should keep ourselves distant from this [genocide] debate,” argued Cohen. “From my perspective, recognition will not contribute to Israel’s national interest. On the contrary, it will create problems with Azerbaijan and Turkey.”

Israel’s refusal to recognize the genocide comes from its desire to protect ties with Turkey, which was a close strategic ally in the 1990s but has become a bitter regional rival under Erdogan. Still, Israel expects to rekindle the alliance at some point in the future.

Azerbaijan is a major purchaser of Israeli weapons. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), over the past five years, Israel has been the top supplier of arms to Azerbaijan, with sales of more than $740 million, putting it ahead of Russia. It is also widely believed that Azerbaijan’s location on Iran’s border gives Israeli intelligence services easier access into the Islamic Republic.

“There should be better ways to nurture important relations than through commiserating over genocide denial,” argued Mouradian.

Another obstacle to Israeli recognition is the conviction among Jews that the Holocaust, or Shoah, was a unique event in history. “It’s hard for them to accept use of same term,” Lindenstrauss posited. “It’s easier to accept a term like tragedy.”

“This should not be a zero-sum competition over victimhood and memory,” Mouradian said.

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