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Disunited by Genocide: How Armenia’s Relations With Israel Have Come to a Dead End

Common wisdom asserts that Jews and Armenians are natural allies, bound by a ‘covenant of fate.’ But that's not at all how Israel sees its relations with the Republic of Armenia

Eldad Ben Aharon
Eldad Ben Aharon
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Armenians protesting against Israel's arming of Azerbaijan in front of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, October 22, 2020.
Armenians protesting against Israel's arming of Azerbaijan in front of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, October 22, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Eldad Ben Aharon
Eldad Ben Aharon

The current fiery debate about Israel's involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict emphasizes, among other things, the common wisdom that Jews and Armenians, as victims of genocide – the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, embody the moral and historical imperative of the notable statement, "Never again." 

While most Jews and Armenians would agree with the framing of shared suffering and confronting future genocide, it is not mirrored in the relations between Israel and the Republic of Armenia. 

The current Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno Karabakh has brought to light, once again, an obvious question: Why has Israel been supporting the Azerbaijanis in this conflict and not standing with what seem like their ‘natural’ ally: Armenia?

To answer this question sufficiently one needs to examine the history of oscillating relations between Israel and the Republic of Armenia. In what follows, I am not advocating for a policy change but offering my historical analysis as to why, for more than three decades, relations between Israel and the Republic of Armenia have not really been working.

Firstly, since the early 1990s, the first Armenian president Levon Hakobi Ter-Petrosyan (1992-1998) believed in establishing Armenia as a democratic nation-state with a free economy, and peaceful relations with all its neighbors, including Turkey

Toward this end, Ter-Petrosyan embedded an approach of "relations without preconditions" in Armenian foreign policy. Relations without preconditions specifically refers to the recognition of the Armenian genocide as a compulsory step to normalize relations with Yerevan.

Ter-Petrosyan waived this condition, despite its very important part in Armenian identity. Israel’s government, nor its parliament, has never formally recognized the Armenian genocide, despite decades of efforts by opposition parliamentarians to pass a recognition resolution.

Secondly, because Ter-Petrosyan knew he couldn't offer oil, gas or any natural resources to Israel, he sought to establish his ties with Jerusalem based on the brotherhood and shared destiny of Jews and Armenians as victims of genocide.

He admired the state of Israel as a model nation-state that bloomed from the ashes of the Holocaust and despite Arab hostility, to establish a country in the heart of the Middle East. 

Specifically, Ter-Petrosyan identified the geopolitical similarities of Armenia of the early 1990s and Israel in the 1950s, as countries emerging from violent conflict and atrocities of genocide. For the Armenian president, Israel provided a favorable example of how to confront hostile neighbors and develop a modern country.

A memorial to victims of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan, Armenia, April 24, 2018.
A memorial to victims of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan, Armenia, April 24, 2018.Credit: Tigran Mehrabyan/AP

For the state of Israel, however, Ter-Petrosyan’s sympathy was simply not enough. Not only was the Republic of Armenia a poor post-communist country, but its lack of natural resources and a well-known dispute with Turkey about the Armenian genocide complicated Israel’s political calculus. Nevertheless, at least formally, Israel agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties with Armenia in 1992.  

Thirdly, Turkey was a bigger attraction. In the same year as the Republic of Armenia’s founding, 1991, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to be on the path for resolution, with the Madrid conference which led to the signing of the Oslo Accords two years later. 

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was extremely important for Turkey’s relations with Israel. Since the 1950s, Ankara had conducted semi-covert relations with Jerusalem because of pressure from Arab and Muslim states to side with Palestinian interests. The Oslo Accords of 1993 gave Turkey the perfect reason to reveal their relations with Israel, and led to the exchange of ambassadors for the first time since 1956. 

As a result, during the 1990s, Turkey and Israel experienced a great boost from bilateral tourism, the trading of goods and technology, cultural exchanges, and even mutual military training. These were the "golden years" of Israeli-Turkish relations that continued until Erdogan come to power in 2002. 

Despite its highs and lows, Israel values relations with Turkey far more than those with Armenia: A billboard celebrating Netanyahu's 2013 apology to Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara affair
Despite its highs and lows, Israel values relations with Turkey far more than those with Armenia: A billboard celebrating Netanyahu's 2013 apology to Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara affairCredit: AP

From Israel’s perspective, the notional brotherhood between Armenians and Jews, sharing the same destiny as victims of genocide, was not as meaningful as robust economic, strategic, and cultural relations with Turkey.

It was absolutely clear to the Israeli diplomatic elite that an alliance with Ter-Petrosyan would only draw negative attention from the Turks and would definitely not benefit Israel.

Fourthly, there was the issue of Iran. Israel has always been wary of closer contact with Yerevan because of its strategic partnership with Tehran, which includes cooperative ties in energy, trade and tourism.

Israel considers post-revolutionary Iran its most significant strategic threat, with Iranian leaders serially calling for Israel’s destruction and also promoting Holocaust denial. Iran’s persistent ambitions to obtain nuclear military capacity, and its clandestine uranium enrichment program, are a central focus of Israel’s national security concerns. 

Israel always kept its relations with Armenia low profile, sending mixed signals, and masking its intentions. The Israeli embassy in Georgia is responsible for conducting Israel’s relations with Armenia. This is a classic example of sending a mixed signal: formal diplomatic ties, but from a "safe" distance.

Still, the Republic of Armenia never gave up on relations with Israel. Over the last 28 years, consecutive Armenian presidents and foreign ministers keep on knocking on doors in Jerusalem, offering relations without preconditions.

The Armenians made numerous attempts to convince Israel to exchange ambassadors and to open an embassy in Yerevan, but from Jerusalem’s point of view, opening an embassy would mean angry phone calls from Baku and Ankara, and significant financial ramifications.

Since 2002, Armenia has been trying to open an embassy in Tel Aviv. While the execution of this step took quite a lot of effort and was postponed a number of times, the Armenian foreign office finally took the step in the summer of 2020, hoping that its initiative would melt the ice and improve bilateral relations. 

When the Armenians announced the grand opening of in 2019, Israel formally encouraged it, noting that "opening the Armenian embassy in Tel Aviv will help to take the friendship between the two peoples to the next level and will encourage further exchange between the countries."  

Israel, for its part, had nothing to lose in such a situation. Considering that it was not a mutual step, Jerusalem could always argue that the Armenians received nothing in return, in particular no recognition of the Armenian genocide. 

The Armenian gesture was useful PR for Israel’s government, showing that Israel is an emerging power with proliferating normalized diplomatic relations under the Netanyahu administration. The Armenian step was not only flattering to Israel but also sent a veiled message to Azerbaijan: that Israel has a strong and independent foreign policy and can conduct diplomatic relations with whomever it wishes, including Baku’s biggest enemy. 

However, when the current round of violence in Nagorno Karabakh begun in late September 2020, Armenia recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations just two weeks after it had officially opened, due to evidence showing that Israel continued to arm Azerbaijan during the ongoing conflict. 

The Israeli-made Orbiter 1K drone can be seen at 00:41Credit: The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry

Specifically, an Israeli-made drone was seen in a video published by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense striking Armenian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh. Dozens of Armenians have reportedly been killed within a week from those "kamikaze" drone attacks.

That, of course, was unacceptable for Yerevan. Israel's Foreign Ministry made a passive statement announcing that it regretted the Armenian decision, emphasizing that "Israel values our partnership with Armenia." This message mirrors Jerusalem’s zero effort policy towards the Armenians.

Despite common wisdom about a covenant of fate between Jews and Armenians, in the current geopolitics of the Caucusus and the Middle East, the relations between Israel and the Republic of Armenia have come to a dead end.

The Armenian policy of relations without preconditions has been interpreted by Jerusalem as a sign of weakness, driving Jerusalem to its zero-effort policy with Yerevan, while doubling up on its arms deals with Azerbaijan. 

Yerevan does not represent a convincing enough strategic advantage for Jerusalem to reconfigure its alliances in the region. In short: Armenia wants Israel more than Israel wants Armenia.

Even if the current conflict in Nagorno Karabakh dissipates into a longer-term but still fragile ceasefire, there is no obvious breakthrough in sight for equitable relations between Israel and Armenia.  

Dr. Eldad Ben Aharon is a lecturer at Leiden University and a Minerva Fellow and Associate Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. He is writing a book on Israeli–Turkish–American relations in the last decade of the Cold War through the prism of the Armenian genocide. Twitter: @EldadBenAharon

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