Amid the latest spat between Israel and Turkey, the Knesset is poised to vote on legislation recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Such proposals have been fielded before, but this instance is notable because the government has neglected to submit a defense of its official Armenian Genocide denial policy to the Knesset, heretofore the typical response to such motions. Given current tensions, recognition now is as politically expedient and as cynical as denial, but it is also Israel’s best opportunity to right a serious historical wrong.

When I visited Yerevan last summer, I was struck by Mount Ararat’s ubiquity in the Armenian capital. Mount Ararat, an Armenian nationalist icon, is visible throughout the city on a clear day, and its twin peaks are a frequent symbol on buildings, brand logos, and souvenirs. But the mountain lies across a closed international border in Turkey. Tsitsernakaberd, the official Armenian Genocide memorial complex, offers one of Yerevan’s most sweeping views of Mount Ararat. It is chilling, as if one could look out into Germany and Poland from Yad Vashem.

Foreign recognition of the 1915-23 genocide is a particularly sensitive subject for Armenians, both in the republic and the diaspora. Across from the overlook at Tsitsernakaberd is a grove of trees planted by visiting dignitaries as a tributes to the one-and-a-half million killed nearly a century ago. There is a noticeable breakdown in the memorial plot: most trees were planted by leaders from predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries (Russia, Belarus, Serbia, Greece, and so on) and non-Western states (with France as one notable exception). The United States, which does not recognize the genocide, is very noticeably absent. So is Israel, for which the Holocaust is a critical part of the modern Jewish state’s founding narrative.

Israel, like many other nations, does not recognize the Armenian Genocide. As in Armenia, history, particularly the memory of collective suffering, oppression, and genocide, is a powerful force in Israel. But so are geopolitics. In each of their respective countries, defenders of official denialism cite the importance of preserving ties with Turkey (which rejects the genocide label and disputes the facts of Ottoman/Turkish actions), and to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan, an energy-rich Turkic country in the South Caucasus. Turkey once occupied a central place in Israel’s foreign policy, as a component of the Trident alliance and the periphery doctrine which saw Israel reach out to non-Arab states on the edge of the Middle East in an effort to stave off total isolation in its own region. Turkey, along with imperial Iran, represented a crucial asset – a Muslim ally. But this was before the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan rendered the idea of a Muslim partner less unique for Israel and the periphery doctrine less essential.

Azerbaijan, which gained independence with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, is a newer addition to Israel’s roster of extra-regional friends. In recent years, the country has become Israel’s primary oil source. It is also locked in a protracted conflict with neighboring Armenia, which occupies Nagorno Karabakh and several neighboring provinces, some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory. Baku has spent much of its new oil revenue on advanced weapons, including arms from Israel, with which to challenge Yerevan.

Today, Turkey’s position in Israel’s external affairs is far more nebulous. Economic relations, a centerpiece of Israel-Turkey relations, have remained and intacted and even grown in the face of incidents like the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid. Today, Turkey remains the second largest importer of Israeli goods in the Middle East (after only the Palestinian Territories). Israelis, for their part, buy more from Turkey than any other country in the region.  Political relations have swung back and forth under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose conservative AKP seems once again to be capitalizing on anti-Israeli sentiment in pursuit of electoral success. When Western European governments like France recognize the genocide, Ankara threatens bilateral military cooperation and the framework of the broader NATO alliance, but Israel’s security ties with Turkey don’t run nearly as deep. There is, of course, the Turkish Jewish community. In 1982, threats to Turkey’s Jewish minority, likely from the government, were sufficient to cancel a Tel Aviv academic conference on genocide featuring works by Armenian scholars. Today, that population is steadily shrinking, while broader political repression under an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan is already hampering Turkey’s relations with its traditional European partners. In short, Ankara has fewer cards to play with Israel. Azerbaijan is a lesser power compared with Turkey, and while genocide recognition is certain to elicit protests from Baku, it is difficult to envision a complete breakup.

Armenian dignity is the common victim here. Holocaust denial is the territory of committed anti-Semites, but Armenian Genocide recognition is bartered as a political football. It is clear that as Israel-Turkey ties suffer, recognizing the Armenian Genocide becomes a less challenging prospect. It would be a bit rich to see some members of Knesset, once custodians of Israel’s official policy of denial, clamoring to recognize the genocide (in fairness to Tamar Zandberg, the current resolution’s sponsor, Meretz has previously opposed Israeli denial, as have other supporters of the bill including Yair Lapid and Yuli Edelstein). However, recognition could have important practical ramifications, including for Israel’s official educational curricula, and this supersedes any commentary about the hypocrisy in Israel (or any other country’s) lateness in recognizing the genocide. If the current legislation succeeds, an Israeli prime minister may yet plant a tree at Tsitsernakaberd, in the shadow of Mount Ararat.  

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