Diplomacy is a tricky thing, especially when it rides the emotional coattails of genocide.
Six years ago, then (and still) Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Jerusalem on a rare and official visit. He met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (now in a coma) and President Moshe Katsav (now in a prison). He also visited Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, where — on behalf of the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the Holocaust (back in 1949) — he laid a wreath to show that Ankara, too, honors the six million Jews killed during WWII. But Erdogan’s act was as much a reflection of his government’s humanity as it was its foreign policy interests. Things were different then. Relations between the two countries were strong, and only getting stronger. But oh, how times have changed.
On Monday, in a rare public debate, an Israeli Knesset (parliament) committee debated marking April 24th as a national memorial day commemorating the Ottoman killing of some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians nearly one-hundred years ago. Modern-day Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, does not dispute the death at that time of more than 60 percent of the Armenian population. But it repeatedly rebukes efforts by countries to dub the killings a “genocide.” Naturally, Ankara is furious that this is happening. And so is Erdogan.
Why now? And why so publicly?
Previous discussions in Jerusalem surrounding the Armenian issue have been held in closed-door sessions, under the guise of the Defense and Foreign Affairs committees. And they have usually failed. Now, Monday’s motion to have the day included in the national curriculum was brought before the Education Committee, and thus the debate was an open one. It was even televised. It might not succeed, like previous efforts. But it’s out there for consumption.
The Armenian Church in Jerusalem, a small yet powerful sect, has lobbied for years for this sort of attention and recognition. Its patriarchate denies the motives are political and insists the discussion is long-overdue. But one cannot help but see the political opportunism at the surface, with Israeli politicians taking a swing at relations with Turkey when they are at an all-time low.
What are they going to do about it?
Following the Israeli assault on the Gaza-bound flotilla that left 8 Turkish nationals and 1 Turkish-American national dead some 18 months ago, Turkey repeatedly asked Israel to apologize and compensate the families of the victims. Israel has refused to do so, and official relations between the two military regional allies have been repeatedly downgraded ever since. Among the latest cards played was Ankara’s recalling of its ambassador from Tel Aviv in September of this year. As one Israeli politician rhetorically asked the New York Times following Monday’s debate, “What’s Turkey going to do about it? Recall its ambassador again?”
Suggestions that these are just Israel’s right-wing elements at work again are premature and inaccurate. This debate is not necessarily — or not just — stemming from the political right amid the height of anti-Turkish sentiment. In a peculiar legislative marriage, the Israeli Left is involved, too. Monday’s session was promoted not just by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, but by the left-wing (though still Zionist) Meretz party, as well. Strange bedfellows, indeed, who rarely unite. Support has also come from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud party, though the PM’s own security team has warned of dire consequences should the matter go forth.
Not so fast
For now, the discussion has been postponed. The committee has said it will take up the matter at yet another session. But that may be little to assuade an irritated Turkish leader.
But Erdogan has little up his sleeve that he can try to use to try to stop them, short of rushing back to Yad Vashem quickly and laying another wreath. And the odds of that happening are slimmer than Israel getting a Meretz/Yisrael Beiteinu coalition in the next election. But again, diplomacy is a tricky business, full of surprises.