Israeli Knesset members Nachman Shai of the Zionist Camp and Anat Berko of Likud are among many world leaders attending the 100-year anniversary commemoration of the mass murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, in ceremonies being held in Armenia Thursday through Saturday.
“Israel must reconsider its position on whether the time has come to recognize the fact that an Armenian genocide occurred,” said Shai, the Tazpit News Agency reported. “As Jews we must recognize it. This is especially true during these days, when we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day."
Such remarks come in sharp contrast with Israel's reluctance thus far to recognize what took place in 1915 as a genocide, in line with the policies of other countries, including the U.S. In a statement by the White House issued this week, U.S. President Barack Obama referred to what took place in Armenia as a “massacre,” a “terrible carnage,” “horrific violence,” and a “dark chapter of history," but he did not use the word genocide.
Israel, along with the U.S., had been reluctant to antagonize Turkey, with whom it had close ties in the past. Turkey continues to refuse to label what took place in Armenia as a genocide—though last year, former prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did acknowledge the "inhumane" treatment of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.
But Israel's relationship with Turkey has faltered in recent years, particularly in the wake of the election of Erdogan and the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, which may be propelling many in the Israeli government to reconsider this issue.
Yet there is another obstacle to Israel's recognition of an Armenian genocide. In recent years, Israel has developed a close relationship with Azerbaijan, which currently supplies 40 percent of Israel’s oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, as JNS.org noted in a feature story on Israeli-Azeri relations last December.
Although Azerbaijan and Armenia are neighboring countries, they are not on friendly terms, particularly due to a dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region in Azerbaijan. In addition to a growing cultural and economic relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, the leadership of Azerbaijan has supported Israel politically and the two countries have strategic interests in common, particularly with regard to Iran, which also neighbors Azerbaijan.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on Turkey to recognize an Armenian genocide, but Azerbaijan's foreign ministry called this move a double standard due to the fact that Armenia has not yet been called on to atone for its alleged role in the massacres of Azeris in the 1990s.
Although this aspect of Israel's geopolitical interests might be an obstacle on the way of recognizing the American genocide, there are additional signs that opinion on the issue might be changing in Israeli leadership.
On Wednesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin endorsed comments made earlier this month by Pope Francis that the mass murder of Armenians was the “first genocide of the 20th Century.”
“The Nazis used the Armenian genocide as something that gave them permission to bring the Holocaust into reality," Rivlin said, TheTower.org reported.
“I will congratulate the Pope on these comments. This is important to Christians, Jews, Muslims—to human beings," said Rivlin.
It's also noteworthy that Jerusalem has an Armenian Christian community comprised of about 1,000 people, which is also marking the anniversary. Bells from 18 churches in the Old City rank 100 times on Thursday, and Armenians marched the streets with the Armenian national flag on Friday.
Aris Shirvanian, the archbishop of the Jerusalem Armenian Patriarchate, said, "We, the Armenians and the Jewish people, have suffered the same fate, and the Armenian genocide has served as a predecessor to the Jewish Holocaust, so Israel should have been actually one of the first countries to support and recognize the Armenian genocide," the Associated Press reported.