rivlin - Emil Salman - November 29 2010
Rivlin. Wants to limit a proposal that could enable discrimination. Photo by Emil Salman
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Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said Monday that he wanted to convene an annual parliamentary session of the full Knesset to mark the Armenian genocide of 1915 and 1916 at the hands of the Turks. "It is my duty as a Jew and Israeli to recognize the tragedies of other peoples," Rivlin said, speaking to an Israel-based Armenian action committee.

Rivlin added: "Diplomatic considerations, important as they may be, do not allow us to deny the disaster [experienced by] another people."

In recent years the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry have applied heavy pressure to head off such sessions of the Knesset out of concern that relations between Israel and Turkey would be harmed. Turkey denies that it committed genocide against the Armenians.

Since 2008, the full Knesset has allowed the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to hold sessions that have been closed to the media about the Armenian genocide. Last week, for the first time, the full Knesset approved the convening of an open, public session on the issue by the Education, Culture and Sports Committee, at the request of Meretz Knesset member Zahava Gal-On. This represents a complete change in approach on the issue.

In 1915 to 1916, between a million and a million and a half Armenians reportedly lost their lives in Turkey, representing about a third of the Armenian people. Armenians have been campaigning for international recognition of the genocide, but the Turks have been active in countering these efforts. Turkey claims there was no genocide, and that in the course of the Armenian fight for independence between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians and a similar number of Turks lost their lives.

As part of the Foreign Ministry's attempt in recent years to block pro-Armenian genocide commemorations, in 2007, ministry staff expressed what was called "dissatisfaction" with plans to hold a session in the Knesset plenum on the issue. The prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, intervened to have the session canceled.

Several months before that, tensions with Turkey rose after the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League supported an effort to have the U.S. Congress recognize the genocide. The Turkish government responded by asking the Israeli government to apply pressure on the ADL to moderate its stand on the Congressional debate. Responding to the entreaties of the president of Turkey, Israeli President Shimon Peres also approached ADL national director Abraham Foxman on the issue, after which the organization reversed course and softened its stance.

In October of 2008, in an unprecedented move, the Knesset voted to have a parliamentary committee convene on the Armenian genocide at the initiative of then-Meretz chairman Haim Oron, paving the way for the sessions in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Over the past two years, however, after relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorated, the Foreign Ministry's opposition to the issue abated, though Rivlin's latest move was at his own initiative.