(photo credit: AP)
Turkey recalled its ambassador to the US Thursday as already-strained relations frayed further following a congressional committee vote recognizing the Armenian genocide.
The move could be indicative of further Turkish steps away from the US and have a ripple effect on Turkish-Israeli relations. Both the US and Israel view the secular Islamic state as a crucial Middle East ally and strategic bulwark in their fight against radical forces in the region.
Despite sharp objections from US President George W. Bush and other administration members, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the resolution by a 27-21 vote Wednesday. The non-binding resolution, which refers to massacres of Armenians by Turks during the break-up of the Ottoman Empire as "genocide," is expected to pass when considered by the full House later this term.
Bush has warned that the resolution "would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror."
Government spokesmen were quick to condemn the committee vote, but that did not keep Turkey from recalling its ambassador for consultations.
Turkey, already showing growing anti-Americanism on its streets, had warned it could reconsider its support for American war efforts, such as allowing key supplies to travel through its territory, should the genocide resolution pass.
Ahead of the vote, Turkey had urged Israel to use its influence in Washington to keep the resolution shelved.
Turkish officials said that in recent days, Israel officials had contacted key US Congressional leaders and discussed both Israel's position on the issue - which is that an independent historical commission should be set up to evaluate the matter - and the possible impact of the legislation on Turkish-Israeli ties.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who was in Israel earlier
this week, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Monday that not only ties with the US, but also those with Israel, would suffer if the resolution passed.
Israeli officials said that concerns of a crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations over the issue were overblown, and that countries with relations in a crisis did not host or invite each other's leaders. When Babacan met President Shimon Peres on Sunday, he extended an invitation to Peres from Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Turkey.
"This is an internal US issue," one official said. "Our ties with Turkey are very strong. There is no reason why this should change anything."
Still, during his visit, Babacan said, "All of a sudden the perception in Turkey right now is that the Jewish people - or the Jewish organizations, let's say - and the Armenian diaspora, the Armenian lobbies, are now hand-in-hand trying to defame Turkey, and trying to condemn Turkey and the Turkish people. This is the unfortunate perception right now in Turkey. So if something goes wrong in Washington, DC, it inevitably will have some influence on relations between Turkey and the US, plus the relations between Turkey and Israel, as well."
His comments followed the controversy this August when the Anti-Defamation League, under pressure from Armenian groups in the Boston area, issued a statement declaring the WWI-era massacres a "genocide," though it didn't back the House resolution.
Alon Liel, a former director of Israel's foreign ministry and an expert in Israel-Turkey relations, said the US legislation could ultimately hurt ties between the US and Israel.
"We tried all these years not to get into it," he said. But because of the ADL's new position, "Turkey will blame the Jewish organizations, and then this could bounce back to us."
Many prominent Jewish organizations have cultivated close relationships with Turkey and used their lobbying prowess to push Turkey's position on Capitol Hill. Yet these groups have come under increasing criticism from Armenian groups for not recognizing the Armenian genocide despite emphasizing Holocaust remembrance.
In contrast to past years, when many Jewish organizations lobbied against similar Armenian genocide resolutions, most Jewish groups avoided taking a stance on the issue.
According to one Jewish leader, this was the result "of the growing Armenian pressure on the Jewish community." He said the decision of American Jewish organizations not to take a stance would "absolutely" affect the relationship these groups had with Turkey and could spill over into the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
"It's going to be highlighted in the Turkish press, and the anti-Semitic press," he said. "You have a Turkish government that is looking to go East rather than West, and this is going to help them go East."
But another Jewish leader said the groups' stance on the Armenian genocide resolution shouldn't have an affect on the relationship with Turkey.
The matter, he said, was not a Jewish issue: "We are non-combatants in this matter."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), who authored the resolution, defended it despite the flap it has caused in Turkish-US relations.
"The United States has a compelling historical and moral reason to recognize the Armenian Genocide, which cost a million and a half people their lives," Schiff said. "But we also have a powerful contemporary reason as well -- how
can we take effective action against the genocide in Darfur if we lack the will to condemn genocide whenever and wherever it occurs?"
On Wednesday, the day the US panel voted in favor of the resolution, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement praising Turkey's tiny Jewish community for working against the resolution.
"The leaders, businessmen and associations of the Jewish community in Turkey, being an integral part of our society, from the outset have denied the unjust and erroneous content of the draft resolution before the US Congress," the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement continued: "They have also exerted great effort to prevent this draft resolution from being brought before the Congress, through meetings with the relevant people abroad and publishing letters and declarations."
Referring to the Anti-Defamation League's statement in August that reversed a long-standing policy and said the WWI massacres were tantamount to genocide, the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "The Turkish Jewish community has also strongly denied the declaration made by an American Jewish organization. Finally, the Turkish Jewish community has recently published a statement in the American press against the draft resolution. We highly appreciate this act as well."
Turkey's Jewish community took out an advertisement in The Washington Post on Wednesday, saying that what happened to the Armenians during World War I "was a terrible tragedy."
"But," the advertisement read, "eminent historians do not agree as to whether the term 'genocide' is the appropriate description of that tragedy. More fundamentally, we believe this issue should be decided first and foremost on the basis of evidence adduced by historians, not on the basis of judgments by parliamentarians or congressmen, who naturally (and understandably) may be influenced by concerns other than historical facts. We cannot help but note that the world recognizes the Holocaust because of the overwhelming evidence, not because of the declarations of parliaments."