“We want to improve and upgrade the relations with Israel in all fields” was the message I heard from Armen Grigororyan, Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia and from Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan in my recent interviews with them. Israel and Armenia have diplomatic relations with non-residential ambassadors, little trade and no encounters in the security military field.
Yet despite two major obstacles – Israel’s weapons sales to Azerbaijan and Israel’s refusal to define what happened to the Armenian people 105 years ago as genocide – the new Armenian government seems to be ready to improve its relations with Israel. Embassies will be opened in Yerevan and Tel Aviv, and soon direct flights will begin between the two cities.
Not far from the office of the foreign minister in Yerevan’s city center is the Tsitsernakaberd Hill, which overlooks the city. Walking atop the hill is reminiscent of Yad Vashem, the main Israeli memorial site in Jerusalem to honor and remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Tsitsernakaberd Hill (which means the swallows’ fortress) hosts the central memorial monument to the 1.5 million Armenians who died as a result of the premeditated Turkish action during World War I. April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, and May 2 is Holocaust Memorial Day.
The 44-meter (158 ft.) high steel monument symbolizes the national rebirth of the Armenians. Twelve slabs are positioned in a circle, representing the 12 lost provinces in present-day Turkey. In the center of the circle, at a depth of 1.5 meters, there is an eternal flame dedicated to the 1.5 million people killed during the Armenian Genocide.
After the war, during the short-lived first Armenian Republic, Armenian assassins volunteered for Operation Nemesis. Its aim was to avenge the massacre of their people by killing eight Turkish ministers and generals responsible for the genocide.
Among them were the “Three Pashas”: the war minister, Ismail Envar, was ambushed in Tajikistan by a Red Army unit led by an Armenian general; the interior minister, Mehmed Talaat, was assassinated in Berlin; and the Navy minister and governor of Syria, Ahmed Djemal, was killed in Georgia.
More than 20 years later after World War II, Jewish fighters called “The Avengers” also decided to take revenge and devised a plan to kill German SS officers, and to poison German drinking water and bakeries.
Yad Vashem, also located on a hill, has the “Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations,” where relatives plant trees to commemorate gentiles who saved Jewish family members. In Yerevan, foreign leaders and other dignitaries are asked to pay their respects to the memory of those who died by planting trees as well.
And yet Israel and Armenia are worlds apart. Israel has consistently refused to acknowledge that what happened to the Armenian people was “genocide.” The decision does not derive only from a desire to monopolize the notion of the Holocaust as a unique and transcending historical event. It is also a cynical political-security ploy.
For years, Israel feared Turkish wrath. Since the late 1950s, Turkey was a strong non-Arab Muslim strategic ally of the Jewish state. There were strong ties between the two nations’ intelligence and security establishments. Turkey was an important and lucrative market for Israeli weapons.
Whenever Israeli parliamentarians, human-rights activists and historians called for historic justice by recognizing the murder of the Armenians as genocide, the initiative was blocked by the government. Regardless of their ideology and political orientation, consecutive Israeli governments, knowing that any change of heart and policy would anger Turkey and jeopardize arms sales, preferred interests over universal values. They agreed only to define the genocide as a “tragedy.”
But in the last decade under the leadership of Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have deteriorated. Arms sales were halted and the clandestine intelligence cooperation aimed against their mutual enemy, Syria, was terminated. Nowadays, as Turkish-Israeli political and military encounters have reached a new low, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair exchange nasty verbal blows over Twitter with Erdoğan, calling each other names such as “tyrant” and “murderer.”
Yet Israel remains adamant that it will not recognize the Armenian genocide. Israel has pulled a new excuse out of its sleeve. It is Azerbaijan, which during the 1991-1994 conflict lost vast territory to Armenia.
Azerbaijan, a Muslim country with a predominantly Shi’ite population, needed to upgrade its military forces. It turned to Israel, which gladly agreed to sell its advanced military hardware to a new and promising market. At first, the ties were kept secretive. Israel’s censor suppressed publication of details about such ties in the Israeli media.
However, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who has been criticized for his corruption, abuse of power and human-rights violations, revealed the secret. In February 2017, while hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said that his country was purchasing weapons worth 5 billion dollars from Israel. To a certain degree, Azerbaijan has replaced Turkey as a market for Israeli military toys.
The arms deals, according to foreign reports, included drones, missiles, radars, artillery, boats and intelligence equipment, which is used to spy on Aliyev’s rivals and Azeri dissidents. An Israeli company upgraded a private jet for Aliyev and another built an underground command and control center for him in the capital Baku.
Some of the Israeli military gadgets – especially drones and artillery shells – were used against Armenian troops in skirmishes that occasionally broke out between the two enemies.
“For Israel, it’s just trade, but for us, it’s death,” Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told me.
In return, Azerbaijan sells oil to Israel and allows Israeli intelligence to use its soil as a launching pad for operations against Iran.
Now, Netanyahu – who was reelected in April for his fifth term as prime minister – fears that acknowledging the Armenian genocide would cause Israel to lose the revenues from the Azeri market and that Aliyev, who is also a good friend of Erdoğan, will halt Israel’s intelligence presence in his country.
Israel’s behavior is a travesty of morality and history. It is even more shameful because it comes from a nation that was built and rose up from the ashes of genocide.
But the truth is that for Israel’s government, the Holocaust “factor” was just an instrument of policy, not a moral compass. The government always knew how to manipulate Holocaust memory and remembrance to enhance political, diplomatic and military interests.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the Baltic and central European states embarked on a path of historical revisionism and the adoration of local anti-communists, who collaborated with German Nazis in killing Jews during World War II. Yet Israel’s governments turned a blind eye and chose military and economic trade over morality. Even Yad Vashem barely protested.
Whenever there is an antisemitic incident, even the most minor one, in western European democracies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government raises hell and calls on their governments to take action against the perpetrators. But they maintain silence when similar incidents occur in Trump’s America or in eastern Europe.
Purely to enhance Israel’s diplomatic posture, Netanyahu has allied himself with right-wing, populist and homophobic governments in Hungary, Poland, Brazil and more, ignoring the fact that they are supported by antisemitic nationalists.
Poland, where three million Jews were murdered in the Nazi death camps, is an especially troubling case for Israel’s double standards. A few months ago, Netanyahu accepted without protest the Polish law, which punishes any person who blames Poles for participating in the Holocaust. Only a slip of the tongue by acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who said that Poles suckled antisemitism with their mothers’ milk, angered the Polish government and led to an Israeli-Polish diplomatic crisis, so far unresolved.
Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan said that his country hopes that Israel will recognize the Armenian genocide but it’s not a precondition for his wish to improve relations between the two nations.
“Our two peoples have so much in common: suffering, rich histories and cultures,” he said.
As an Israeli and a Jew, I strongly believe that it’s about time my government stops its evasive language in the service of crude interests. Armenian historic justice can’t be blocked by Israel at the gates of the Jewish Holocaust.
When one sees evil, one has to call it by its name. Israel must relinquish its double-standard approach. A genocide is a genocide is a genocide. It is the moral obligation of Israel to history, humanity and to the memory of the six million Jews, to recognize the Armenian genocide, exactly as it recognizes the Rwanda genocide 25 years ago.
Here is my interview with the Armenian foreign minister:Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, how do you view the future of relations between the two countries?
It is clear to me that there is good potential for the two nations in developing relations. It is so visible what potential we have. We have a great history and civilization. We have an enormous sense of national identity and pride, so we can work together in so many fields of economy, agriculture, hi-tech, tourism, direct flights, health culture, education and so on and so forth.Do Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan, including selling weapons to its army, stand in the way? Is this an obstacle?
It has been and remains an issue of great concern for us on several counts. Israel’s arms trade is a weapon of death for our people. We have been witnessing the use of such weapons against our people. We have losses because of your weapons that are used against us. We are a security conscious nation and are highly confident in our capacity to defend ourselves, and you will understand very well what that means. At the same time, we are dedicated to developing peace and security in our region. The arms race in our region does not contribute to building peace and security.And you have good ties with Iran, which is an enemy of Israel and threatens its existence?
We are very insistent that building relations with one partner will not be at the expense of another partner. But we also expect that all our partners will do the same. We are also very sensitive to the sensitivities of our partners.Are you surprised that Israel refuses to recognize what happened to your people as genocide?
“It’s not a matter for me to be surprised. I represent a nation that still faces the pressure of justice denied over 105 years. My people are victories because we were supposed to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Still my question is, are you surprised and disappointed about Israel’s position?
The question of denied justice is about humanity. It is for Israel to decide whether to recognize [the Armenian genocide] or not. It is not about Armenia, it is about Israel. It is our collective duty nowadays to reduce the risk of genocide and atrocities.
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