An Israeli parliamentary committee held a landmark discussion on recognising genocide in Armenia on Monday, a move likely to further strain already tense relations with Turkey.
During the discussion on the “Jewish people’s recognition of the Armenian genocide,” as defined by the committee, lawmakers, historians and members of the local Armenian community stressed Israel’s moral obligation to officially recognise the Armenian tragedy as a genocide.
The committee did not, however, make any decisions or issue any declaration, and will meet again on the issue in the future.
In past years, the Knesset held hearings on the subject, but only behind the closed doors of its foreign and defence committee.
This was the first time such a discussion was open to the public.
Proposals by lawmakers to hold hearings on the issue were rejected by governments over the years, when ties between Israel and Turkey were warm.
But relations plunged into deep crisis last year when Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a raid on a Turkish ferry, part of an activist flotilla seeking to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
In October, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and axed military ties and defence trade. Last week, Israel cancelled completion of a 2008 contract to sell Turkey aerial surveillance equipment.
Committee chairman Alex Miller of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu — the party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — said the discussion would focus on the “educational and academic” aspects of the issue, such as the correct way to address it in schools and universities, rather than its security and diplomatic angles.
Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin also stressed that the issue was not a political one.
“The subject has not arisen at the Knesset because things happened between Israel and Turkey; not because we want to exploit a political situation in order to settle accounts,” he told the committee at the start of its debate.
But a foreign ministry representative at the discussion warned of the repercussions an Israeli move toward recognising the Armenian genocide could have on the already-strained relations with Turkey.
“Our relations with them are so fragile today, it is not right to push them over the red line,” Irit Lillian said. “Such a recognition at this stage could have severe ramifications.”
Ariyeh Eldad of the right-wing National Union party, who along with Zehava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz party initiated the hearing, said: “In the past it was wrong to bring up the issue because our ties with Turkey were good; now it is wrong because our ties with them are bad. When will the time be right?”
Gal-On said Israel had a “moral and historic obligation” to recognise the genocide of a million and a half Armenians, “especially when we are still struggling against Holocaust denial. The Israeli educational system cannot silence the Armenian genocide.”
Georgette Avakian of the Armenian National Committee in Jerusalem was reservedly satisfied at the meeting’s conclusion.
“This was a breakthrough, since the education committee dealt with it,” she told AFP. “But I’m disappointed that they haven’t reached any conclusions and are putting it off” for further discussions.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kinsmen died in orchestrated killings during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish government strongly denies this, saying 300,000 Armenians and as many Turks were killed in civil conflict when the Christian Armenians, backed by Russia, rose up against the Ottoman Empire.
France’s lower house voted last week to criminalise the denial of genocide in Armenia, prompting Turkey to suspend political and military cooperation.