Analysis |

Unfazed by Erdogan, U.S. Recognition of Armenian Genocide Is a Warning for Trump and Israel

Turkey has created a parallel narrative to that of the Armenians about what happened between 1915 and 1922 – and the Senate is refusing to play along

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Armenian-Americans march in protest through the Little Armenia neighborhood of Hollywood, California demanding recognition by Turkey on the 103rd anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, April 24, 2018.
Armenian-Americans march in protest through the Little Armenia neighborhood of Hollywood, California demanding recognition by Turkey on the 103rd anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, April 24, 2Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The U.S. Senate's decision on Thursday to recognize the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman empire between 1915 and 1922 has no binding significance or practical implication, for now.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Erdogan did say "if necessary" he could shut down the key Incirlik air base, which hosts U.S. nuclear warheads, and Ankara summoned the American ambassador to warn of the damage that the Senate resolution could cause to relations between the two countries, but it doesn’t appear that it can do much at this point, after 32 countries, including Italy and Spain but not the U.K. or Israel, have recognized the genocide.

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It’s doubtful that the Senate resolution is the result of a sudden burst of sensitivity over the Armenian genocide or that instead it was over concerns that such tragic events could be repeated. It appears that the major motivation for the resolution was in fact provided by Erdogan himself when he decided to invade Syria and capture the country’s Kurdish areas. That came after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention, which he has still not fulfilled, to withdraw American forces from Syrian territory.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan take part in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2019. Credit: AFP

Erdogan was already aware of Congress’ intentions when he stuck it to the United States with his decision to buy Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems – and before that, when he arrested an American pastor and a Turkish employee of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul on suspicions that they had conspired with the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States.

But it wasn't just Erdogan who got a slap in the face by members of Congress. President Trump invested major efforts to try to prevent the passage of the Armenian genocide resolution, which the House of Representatives passed in October, and which the Senate has now passed as well. Trump, who defended Erdogan over Turkey’s procurement of the Russian missiles and came to an agreement with him in a single telephone call regarding a U.S. withdrawal from Syria, found himself facing an obstinate Republican-controlled Senate that was prepared to buck the president – at least when it comes to issues that don’t involve risk to American security.

Former President Barack Obama might be getting perverse pleasure over Trump’s failure, but the former president should be reminded that he himself committed to have the resolution passed but flinched over concern that it would damage America’s ties with Turkey. It looks like any concern over a Turkish reaction failed to frighten members of Congress, an attitude that is not shared by Knesset members and the Israeli cabinet, who still can’t bring themselves to recognize the Armenian genocide. Israel’s justification has traditionally been based on two grounds. One is concern that recognizing a holocaust of another people would undermine the singular nature of the Jewish Holocaust as a one-time historical event. The other is that it would bring about a total break in ties between Israel and Turkey.

But even when relations between Turkey and Israel were in a deep freeze following the lethal confrontation at sea in 2010 between Israeli forces and the Mavi Marmara – the Turkish ship seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza – and the bitter criticism that Erdogan leveled against Israel, Israel refrained from taking that extra step and demonstrating an appropriate moral stance. Relations between Israel and Turkey still haven’t really been rehabilitated, but now Israel is being careful not to anger Turkey as a result of concern over the future of a pipeline between Israeli gas fields and Europe.

Now that Turkey has signed an agreement with Libya over their maritime borders, Israel may need to negotiate with Ankara over the placement of a pipeline and the payment of royalties. The Armenian issue will have to wait.

In addition, always hovering in the background has been Israeli concern that recognition of the Armenian genocide would reignite international debate over Israeli responsibility for the Nakba, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence. Israel does not acknowledge any such responsibility.

In 2005, Turkey suggested establishing a panel of Turkish and Armenian historians that would “scientifically” examine the facts relating to the expulsion and massacre of the Armenians. In Israel, a comparable committee empaneled to examine the Nakba would immediately be labeled national treason and a malicious attempt to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

Israeli protesters hold signs and shout slogans during a demonstration against Turkey's military action in Syria, outside the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 15, 2019.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Like Israel, Turkey has created a parallel narrative to that of the Armenians about what happened. Ankara doesn’t deny that Armenians were killed during fighting in Turkey during World War I, but it disputes the numbers and the circumstances in which they were killed. The Turkish position is presented on a special website set up by the Communications Directorate of the office of Turkey’s president.

“Turkey’s position on the events of 1915 is that the deaths of Armenians in eastern Anatolia took place when some sided with invading Russians and revolted against Ottoman forces. A subsequent relocation of Armenians resulted in numerous casualties,” the website states, adding that radical Armenian factions in exile began claiming that 600,000 Armenians were killed in the course of the relocation. Later the figure increased to 800,000 and then to 1.5 million, the website says.

Similar to the issue of the number of Palestinian refugees, in Turkey, major importance is attached to the numbers involved, as well as to the circumstances of the deaths. One day Turkey may be required not only to recognize and apologize for the killings, but to pay reparations for them.

Admittedly, the term “relocation” is a rather effective invention that perhaps is worth adopting in Israel as well. After all, someone who relocates is not a refugee. When all is said and done, he’s simply seeking to improve his quality of life.

With this as Turkey’s official government position, articles published in professional publications such as that of Istanbul’s bar association should come as no surprise. In one issue of the publication, Mustafa Chalik wrote: “We support the 1915 Armenian expulsion. Anyone characterizing the expulsion as genocide is as if he were declaring war. Armenians and others who call it genocide risk a new expulsion, a step against them that would be quite easy … If we believe that there is no other way to defend our homeland and our national existence, the least that we can do is to carry out a new expulsion.”

Chalik was writing about the Armenians, but the Kurds would also do well to watch themselves.

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