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Armenian Genocide Crisis Tests Tight Ties Between Turkey and Israel

Turkish, Israeli and American Jewish officials held frantic consultations in the past week in an effort to defuse a diplomatic crisis prompted by the Anti-Defamation League’s recent description of the Ottoman massacre of Armenians during World War I as “tantamount to genocide.”

Senior Israeli and American Jewish officials went out of their way to restate Jerusalem’s long-held view that the historical dispute should be resolved between Turkey and Armenia, a position shared by Washington as well as most major American Jewish organizations. The ADL itself tried to calm tensions by issuing a statement opposing a congressional resolution recognizing that a genocide took place and by sending a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing “deep regret” and the desire to “deepen our friendship.”

And after initially warning Israeli diplomats and American Jewish leaders that the ADL’s use of the word “genocide” could jeopardize years of efforts to forge close ties between Jerusalem and Ankara, the Turkish government also sounded a conciliatory note.

“Everybody wants a period of calm,” Nabi Sensoy, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, told the Forward after holding talks with key Jewish communal leaders. “We have to avoid at all costs the derailment of good relations between Turks and Jews.”

Both the extent of those good relations and their vulnerability to disagreement over the massacre of Armenians were put on stark display by the flare-up.

Israel and its supporters in the United States have been nurturing ties with the Turkish government for years, maintaining close relations even after Erdogan’s Islamist party took office in 2002. Turkey, for its part, has cultivated Jewish support in Washington in an effort to secure American diplomatic and military support and to prevent Congress from involving itself in the Armenian issue.

The decades-long ties between Turkey and Israel’s supporters in the United States strengthened considerably during the 1990s, when Jerusalem and Ankara reached a number of business and military agreements. In recent years former congressmen Richard Gephardt, Bob Livingston and Steve Solarz joined the American Israel Political Affairs Committee in lobbying Washington to give military aid to Ankara and to fight off congressional efforts to pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, according to several sources familiar with the issue.

Most Jewish organizations are quick to underscore that Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, praising it as a rare Muslim ally of Israel and the United States. Jewish communal officials have hailed Ankara’s commitment to fighting antisemitism and terrorism, its support for Magen David Adom’s candidacy for membership in the International Committee of the Red Cross and its willingness to mediate between Israel and both the Palestinians and the Syrians.

While tensions have surfaced over Ankara’s refusal to allow American troops to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003 and over meetings between Turkish officials and Hamas leaders, last week’s flare-up was notable for revolving around an issue considered to be tangential to Jewish and Israeli interests. As Ankara continued to make clear this week, Turkish cooperation is dependent in no small part on the understanding that the topic of Armenian genocide is not one for public debate.

Sensoy told the Forward that Turkey was “very disappointed” by the ADL’s statement “because it changed the premise of everything we had achieved with the U.S. Jewish community.”

The ADL described the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as “tantamount to genocide” last week, after declining for years to take a position on the question. Two days later, the group issued a second statement stating that a congressional resolution would be a “counterproductive diversion” that may “put at risk the Turkish Jewish community and the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States.”

Other major Jewish groups have been mostly mum on the issue. In a blog post, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, wrote that while he could not escape the conclusions of credible experts that the 1915 events were in fact “genocide,” he argued, as Ankara does, that Turkish and Armenian historians should review the record and seek common ground.

While several European countries have passed laws referring to the massacres as genocide, both the Israeli and American governments have refused to make such a determination, and efforts to have their legislative branches adopt such language have so far failed. In March the Knesset shelved a proposal for a parliamentary discussion on the Armenian genocide, but on Capitol Hill a nonbinding resolution recognizing that a genocide took place has picked up some support since Democrats regained a majority in last year’s midterm elections.

Foxman told the Forward that he has had numerous conversations about the issue in recent days and stressed that the ADL had not changed its position on the congressional resolution. The ADL did, however, rehire its New England regional director, Andrew Tarsy, after firing him for publicly breaking with the national leadership and acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Foxman said he had made the decision after a series of conversations and that this effectively meant Tarsy agreed with the ADL’s opposition to the passage of a congressional resolution.

“We want to make sure the Turkish government understands that the use of the word ‘genocide’ doesn’t change our position on what Congress needs to do,” Foxman told the Forward. “Some people don’t understand it. Some people understand it, and the Turkish prime minister is among them.”

Foxman was referring to remarks Erdogan made to reporters Sunday, in which he said that “the wrong step that has been taken is corrected.”

Prior to Erdogan’s response, Ankara had lashed out both to express disappointment and to prevent other Jewish groups from following suit. Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, complained bitterly to Israel’s ambassador in Ankara, Pinhas Avivi, that Israel could have done more to prevent the ADL’s shift during a tense meeting last Thursday, Ha’aretz reported. Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke last week with Erdogan to explain that Israel had no intention of changing its neutral policy on the issue.

Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Namik Tan, made clear to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that Ankara expects at least as much from Israel, demanding that Jerusalem “deliver” American Jewish organizations and ensure that Congress does not pass the genocide resolution.

“Israel should not let the Jewish community change its position,” Tan reportedly said. “This is our expectation, and this is highly important, highly important.”

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