Knesset plenum
The Knesset plenum. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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A Knesset panel has announced its plan to hold the first official public debate on the Armenian Genocide, officials said Wednesday, in what many see as a further sign of Israel's deteriorating ties with long-time ally Turkey.

Israel has long evaded a public discussion of the 1915-era killings of Armenians by Turkish forces, also avoiding calling the attack "genocide," out of fears of disrupting its long-standing diplomatic and military alliance with Turkey.

In recent years, former Meretz MK Haim Oron had repeatedly attempted to raise the issue at the Knesset's Education panel, with government officials moving to cancel the debate.

Last year, as ties with Turkey had begun to fray following Israel's war in Gaza against Hamas and an attack on a Turkish aid flotilla in 2010, Oron was granted approval to discuss the Armenian Genocide in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the meetings of which are closed to the media.

However, in what seems to be another sign of worsening Jerusalem-Ankara ties, the Knesset moved Tuesday to approve a discussion by Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On, who replaced Oron following his retirement, to hold the first public discussion on the Armenian Genocide.

Speaking to the Knesset assembly, Gal-On said that she believed "that is was the duty of the Israeli Knesset to make a clear stance on this issue, especially in face of the thundering silence of past Israeli governments over so many years."

"It is important to stress – the moral obligation to recognize the Armenian Genocide is not a left or right issue," Gal-On said.

The Meretz MK added that the effort to bring the issue to public discussion was partnered along the years with representatives of all side of the Israeli political map, including such right-wing officials as Likud Minister Benny Begin, Yisrael Beiteinu's National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

"The Armenian Genocide has been used as a pawn of Israel's foreign ministry for too many years," Gal-On said, adding that Israel has chosen to "sacrifice the values of memory, recognition and commemoration on the alter of narrow interests."

"Israel has thus chosen," the Meretz MK concluded, "to adopt the Turkish position, which refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide."

In 2007, the Knesset decided to shelve a proposal for a parliamentary discussion on the Armenian genocide, in compliance with then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request.

Tzipi Livni, Foreign Minister at the time, had also asked for a removal Oron's proposal from the agenda of the Knesset Education, Culture, and Sports Committee.

She said the discussion might destabilize diplomatic relations with Turkey, which denies responsibility for the death of nearly 1 million Armenians during World War I.

MK Oron said that before the vote, Livni called him twice to ask him to withdraw the proposal. "This inquiry is something we owe the Armenians, primarily at a time when we are struggling to preserve the memory of our own people," said Oron.

He added that he had intended the discussion to lead to a resolution by the Knesset acknowledging the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians by the Turkish security forces.

Prominent members of the Armenian community in Israel observed the vote from the Knesset visitors' balcony and expressed their disappointment with the decision.