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Armenia recognizes Palestine, adding to its strained ties with Israel

Armenia’s ties with Israel have been long strained over Israel’s refusal to recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide

(JTA) — YEREVAN, Armenia — The Armenian government said Friday that it would recognize the state of Palestine, following similar announcements in recent weeks by Norway, Ireland, Spain and Slovenia. The decision — which makes Armenia the 145th country to extend such recognition — elicited praise from Palestinian authorities and a stern rebuke by Israel.

Citing the “catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza,” Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said it was taking this step because “Armenia is genuinely committed to establishing peace and stability in the Middle East, and lasting reconciliation between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.”

But this latest move could only complicate efforts to improve Armenian-Israeli ties — and to dispel the idea that Armenia is a hotbed of antisemitism. Israeli officials have summoned Armen Akopian, Armenia’s Tel Aviv-based ambassador, to a meeting for an official rebuke.

The two countries’ relations have already been soured by billions of dollars in Israeli weapons sales to Armenia’s arch-enemy, Azerbaijan, as well as a bitter land dispute over Armenian church property in Jerusalem’s Old City. Adding insult to injury in the eyes of many here, Israel still hasn’t officially recognized the 1915 genocide of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians under Ottoman Turkish rule.

Every year on April 24, Armenians around the world, including in Israel, observe Genocide Remembrance Day, a solemn reminder of the first mass killing of the 20th century — and an event that gave rise to the term “genocide” itself.

“We feel that Jews and Armenians have a common destiny. And that’s why it hurts us more when this attitude comes from Israel,” said Stella Mehrabekyan, a senior editor at the CivilNet news agency in Yerevan. “We expect Israel’s actions would be based on moral grounds. Maybe this is naïve, but when your children are killed by Israeli drones, you cannot stay indifferent.”

Despite Israel’s official line, most Israelis accept that Turkey under Ottoman rule did in fact kill more than 1 million ethnic Armenians over a century ago, said Marina Kozliner, an Armenian Jew living in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam.

“You ask anyone on the street here, they completely support Armenia,” said Kozliner, who led the local April 24 commemoration of the genocide in Petah Tikva, which is home to nearly half the Armenians living in Israel.

Akopian declined to comment Friday about his government’s recognition of Palestine. But in a recent interview at a Yerevan café, he said the Jewish state has traditionally withheld recognition of the Armenian genocide in order to avoid offending Turkey — for years one of its few Muslim allies in the Middle East.

Yet even as those ties have disintegrated under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israel has resisted calling what happened to Armenians during World War I a genocide — despite the fact that on April 24, 2021, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to do exactly that.

“Armenians care, because when it comes to Israel, this equals denial,” Akopian told JTA. “And this is used by those who deny the Armenian genocide. It’s basically saying, ‘If Israel doesn’t recognize it, this means that it never happened.’”

The controversy comes against the backdrop of three current conflicts: the war sparked by Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

As Armenia’s tiny Jewish community has swelled thanks to the arrival of 1,000 Russian and Ukrainian Jews to Yerevan over the past two years, incidents of antisemitism have increased as well.

Rabbi Gershon Burshtein is the spiritual leader of Yerevan’s Mordechay Navi Jewish Religious Center, and the only rabbi in this land of 2.8 million inhabitants — 97% of them adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Burshtein said his little synagogue, an outpost of Chabad, has been vandalized three times since Rosh Hashanah — the first time in September, then again three days before the Hamas assault on Israel and a third time in November. In each case, damage was minimal, though the third time, masked men set the building on fire and later claimed to be acting on behalf of the Armenian Secret Army For Liberation of Armenia, which opposes Israel’s ties to Azerbaijan.

Both Burshtein and Akopian said they believe the incidents are a blatant attempt to discredit Armenia.

“Never before in the history of our synagogue has there been any attack, and now there have been three,” Burshtein said. “I rule out any involvement from the locals, because the first breaking news about this came from channels linked to Azerbaijan and Russia. They were spreading this information in order to portray Armenia as a country where antisemitism dominates. And Russia’s interest is clearly to prevent a rapprochement between Israel and Armenia.”

Added Akopian: “Barely 15 minutes after the attack, the Azerbaijani ambassador put something on Twitter. They were not clever enough to wait.”

Mainly Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics, have had hostile relations since before the formation of the USSR. The neighboring countries fought two wars over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, from 1988 to 1994 and again in 2020.

Tensions flared again in September 2023, when Azerbaijan forced more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians — virtually the entire population — out of Karabakh and into Armenia proper, with the help of Israeli weapons and drones and Turkish diplomatic support.

Israel is believed to supply Azerbaijan with close to 70% of its arsenal of heavy artillery, rocket launchers and drones. In return, Israel gets about 40% of its crude oil from Azerbaijan — which also allows Israeli drone surveillance of Iranian territory from its 428-mile border with Iran.

“This a deplorable use of military capability supplied to a rogue dictatorship that has brazenly murdered civilians and violated the sovereignty of Armenia,” wrote columnist Stepan Piligian in the online Armenian Weekly. “Israel is complicit in this assault on the Armenians. Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself is not at issue here. It is a morally corrupt policy for a country like Israel — founded on the ideals of self-determination and freedom after a horrific attempt at liquidation to deny others their rights.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic cleansing quickly receded from public consciousness after Oct. 7, when Israel was brutally attacked and responded by waging war against Hamas in Gaza.

As in other places, opposition to the war has veered into antisemitism at times in Armenia, too. Several months ago, Abel Simonyan, a political marketing specialist whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, entered a Yerevan pub and overheard two Armenian-speaking men cursing Israel because of the war in Gaza.

“One said the Jews are anti-Putin, and that they try to sow discord everywhere,” he recalled. “I intervened and asked them not to spew hatred, and to keep it down because they were hurting my feelings. Things got heated and they threatened to slit my throat.”

Eric Hacopian, a political consultant who spent years helping prominent California Democrats win elections before relocating to Armenia in 2017, said a tiny minority of Armenians are indeed vocal about their hatred of Jews — mainly a consequence of Israel’s friendship with Azerbaijan — and that their hatred has increased since Oct. 7.

But he emphasized that “these people have no influence or relevance” on society as a whole.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an issue in Armenia,” Hacopian said. “People are going through their own trauma. They don’t have time for that.”

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