During and immediately after World War I, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks killed between one million and 1.5 million Armenians – a tiny Christian ethnic minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim region. There is no debate about the murders, or about the methodical way in which the murders were planned and executed by the very top echelons of the Turkish government.
What is debated by most of the world is whether or not the Armenian genocide will be called “genocide.” Unlike Germany – which has fully accepted responsibility for the Holocaust – Turkey has used every diplomatic string it can pull to avoid being labeled a perpetrator of genocide. Especially in the post-World War II world order, with Turkey serving as a stable, democratic bridge between the West and the Muslim world, Western powers have been unwilling to confront the Turks about this deplorable chapter in their history. Only 20 countries (including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia) have recognized the genocide and Germany, in 2005, said that Turkey had to take responsibility for the events of that time, but stopped short of using the word “genocide.” Forty-three U.S. states have passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide.
Turkey has resisted, in sometimes harsh ways, any effort to call the genocide what it was. They most frequently make diplomatic and economic threats against countries that dare to even debate the genocide. Western observers may wonder what the big deal is – why doesn’t Turkey just admit what happened almost 100 years and say they’re sorry? Well…it’s a VERY big deal to Turkey. And to Armenians.
Which is why Israel’s decision this week to recognize the Armenian genocide is so interesting – because it comes at the same time as the release of a report on the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara, the cruise ship illegally trying to break the blockade of Gaza that was diverted by the Israeli military in 2010. During that raid, Israeli commandos were attacked by a mob of paid thugs. The IDF and on-board cameras showed the attack. Responding in self-defense, Israeli soldiers killed nine passengers. The incident damaged an already troubled relationship between the two once-close countries.
Israel has considered recognition of the genocide before – but never so seriously. It is likely to pass this time. I suspect that there are two major calculations at play and another minor one:
- The Israelis may believe that the relationship between Israel and Turkey is gone and is not coming back. There is ample evidence for this. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a virulent anti-Semite who bashes Israel every chance he gets. Turkey, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has blocked Israeli participation in NATO military exercises and, most recently, prevented Israel from participating in the NATO meeting in Chicago.
- It’s the right thing to do, and has grated on the Israeli conscience for years. For the world’s lone Jewish state to fail to recognize the genocide of another people is too much for many Israelis.
- The minor calculation is the timing of the report on the Mavi Marmara incident. If the report contains information that may be damaging to Israel, it’s possible that recognition of the genocide is partly designed to take away some of the attention. If the report condemns Turkey, it’s possible that the recognition is designed to twist the knife.
Should the recognition pass in the Israeli Knesset, we will have to wait and see what ramifications result. One thing is clear: the relationship between Israel and Turkey seems likely to get much worse in the very near future.