Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure to ignore protests by Turkey and follow U.S. President Joe Biden in declaring the mass killings of Armenians and other minority groups a century ago a genocide.
Biden’s historic genocide recognition made the United States the 30th country in the world to classify as such the ethnic cleansing that experts estimate killed a million Armenians and hundreds of thousands of other minorities, including Assyrians and Greeks, at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The decision immediately put the U.S. at odds with NATO ally Turkey, the modern successor to the Ottoman Empire. Ankara acknowledges that there were widespread killings amid clashes at the time, but denies that it was part of a systematic campaign that qualifies as genocide.
The move also put the spotlight on another U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel. Despite the country’s intrinsic ties to the systematic massacre of more than six million Jews and other minorities in the Holocaust during World War II, Israel has not recognized an Armenian Genocide.
Today, it still stops short of doing so.
“The State of Israel recognizes the tragedy and terrible suffering of the Armenian people,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “At this time in particular, it is our responsibility, and that of other countries in the world, to ensure that such events are not repeated.”
While Israel has extended its sympathy to those killed and displaced during the event, Netanyahu’s reluctance to take the next step has spurred calls for a new approach that more closely resembled that of the U.S., even from some of Israel’s most ardent supporters.
“While some U.S. leaders, most notably Barack Obama, talked about using the ‘g word’— genocide—in referring to the Armenian tragedy, in the end they all blinked when faced with Turkey’s intense pushback,” American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “That’s what makes President Joe Biden’s decision, which the American Jewish Committee warmly welcomed, all the more significant. He didn’t compromise on truth for the sake of political expediency.”
AJC, an influential Jewish advocacy organization that predates even the mass killings and displacements in question, “has also encouraged Israel to consider the American step,” he said.
Harris said it should be done, even if it came at the cost of fueling further tensions with a powerful regional player.
“It’s not been an easy call for Jerusalem, since Ankara plays hardball, and has made it crystal clear that any such move could trigger a costly reaction affecting core Israeli interests,” he said. That’s far from easy to dismiss or sideline.”
“Nonetheless, as a country where the genocide against the Jews is seared into the national consciousness, can Israel afford to avoid recognizing the same Armenian reality?” Harris asked. “When values and interests collide for any country, the latter usually win out.”
“On this issue, in Israel’s case,” he added, “perhaps it will eventually produce a different result.”
Relations between Israel and Turkey today are already severely strained. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often railed against Netanyahu, and has voiced consistent support for the right of return for Palestinians who themselves were forcefully displaced from lands also claimed by Israel during the country’s 1948 establishment.
But relations between the two countries haven’t always been hostile. Just a year after Israel came into existence, Turkey was the first majority-Muslim nation to recognize it. Ties between the two countries fluctuated with the tumultuous tides of Middle East politics throughout the following decades, but saw a marked improvement through the turn of the 21st century, with Turkey emerging as Israel’s closet regional partner.