Are Israeli-Armenian relations warming up?

With Armenian Christmas set to be celebrated in the Holy Land on January 18, we take a closer look at this republic in the Caucasus.

‘DIFFERENT FROM our neighbors’: Armenia today. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘DIFFERENT FROM our neighbors’: Armenia today.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Armenians are proud of their small country, which has a rich culture and history, and love to point out the many similarities between Israel and Armenia. Another topic they never seem to tire of discussing is the Armenian Genocide, and how many countries have yet to recognize it as a fact of history.
Nana Makaratchian, director of an Armenian tourism company that organizes flights to Israel, says they were disappointed when the vote in the Knesset to recognize the Armenian Genocide was canceled. “I would expect that the people of the Jewish State would understand how important this is to us,” she said.
Many people picture Armenia as a poor country with inferior infrastructure. It’s true that tourists won’t encounter many highways, gas pipelines in small villages are an eyesore, and cows are often seen wandering around aimlessly. One of the most common sights is of elderly women baking traditional flatbread, called lavash. Food in Armenia is simple and cheap. While almost no one speaks
English, nonetheless, several luxury hotels have popped up in the capital Yerevan. The country is hoping its tourism sector will pick up speed, despite the conflict with its neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Now that Armenia Air is operating twice weekly flights to Ben-Gurion, the country is hoping for increased tourism from Israel.
“We identify strongly with the Jewish people,” says Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. “We are very different from our neighbors. We have a long history, and have survived many wars and invasions. We know how to adapt to different cultures.”
THE REPUBLIC of Armenia is located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Adjoining Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, it shares a strong historical and political connection with Europe.
During the First World War, Ottoman Turkey was unhappy that its Armenian minority was working to achieve independence and openly supported Czarist Russia, which had advanced across the Caucasus and was headed towards Anatolia. The Armenians, who were hoping to liberate their country, occupied an area that was especially susceptible to foreign invasion. And so, in 1915, the Ottoman government decreed that all residents in Anatolia of Armenian descent would be expelled. By the end of 1918, Turkey had systematically murdered some 1.5 million Armenians. Ever since, Armenia has been demanding international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which until today remains a subject of great tension with Turkey.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia received independence. However, most of its territory remains under Turkish control. Israel and Armenia have had diplomatic relations since 1992. The Armenian people and the Jewish people share a number of common attributes. Both have relatively small numbers, are dispersed in a diaspora around the world, have long-standing aspirations to be an independent nation-state, are surrounded by hostile Muslim countries, and have an influential lobby in the US. Both have considerable experience dealing with national traumas.
Relations between Israel and Armenia are underdeveloped, due to the latter’s conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which have highly developed relationships with Israel.
“Armenia has so much to offer Israel in the fields of agriculture, science, technology, education and innovation – and especially in the area of early childhood education,” says Mnatsakanyan. “We’ve developed a number of mobile apps that have attracted millions of users. I plan on traveling to Israel myself in the near future to promote joint ventures.”
How did you feel when the Knesset vote to recognize the Armenian Genocide was canceled?
“The vote wasn’t just about recognizing the Armenian Genocide. It was about taking a moral stance. 1.5 million of our people were murdered. My ancestors are genocide survivors who found a refuge in Tbilisi. Many of my relatives were killed in the genocide. But we do not feel like victims. We are victors because we were not supposed to be on the surface of this earth. I would not say that we were not disappointed that the vote didn’t take place in the end. We know that this issue has become a trading chip in your relations with Turkey and it is very unfortunate.”
Is there military cooperation between the two countries?
“Armenia is extremely concerned about its security issues, especially with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh (an enclave inside Azerbaijan, which has unilaterally declared its disengagement from the secular Muslim country. Armenia, which has a Christian majority, has been in conflict with its Muslim Azeri neighbors for many years-JP.) People there are in danger. It is well-known, that Israel sold weapons to Azerbaijan. That doesn’t mean that we would not like to develop realtions with Israel, including in the military field.”
“We have an extremely long history with Iran,” continues Mnatsakanyan. “They are very aware of the cultural contribution Armenia has had in Iran. Since we have what could be described at best as hostile relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Iran functions as an important lifeline channel for us. We have good relations with many countries, and it’s essential for us that our relationship with one country does not jeopardize our connections with others.”
How do you think Iran will react if Armenia’s relations with Israel continue to warm up?
“Like I said, relations with one country won’t jeopardize our connections with others.”
What’s your opinion about Avigdor Liberman quitting his position as Defense Minister? He was quite involved in the Caucasus, wasn’t he?
“I don’t think I’m going to lose any sleep over it. He’s the one who sold arms to our adversary, to Azerbaijan.”
Azeri sources have reported that a huge monument to Armenian nationalist Garegin Nzhdeh, who is said to have collaborated with the Nazis, was erected in Yerevan. What do you think about this?
“People must be careful when they make proclamations. This is pure propaganda promoted by our adversaries.”
Does it bother you that our countries do not have embassies in each other’s country?
“I’m optimistic that this will happen soon. We’d be more than happy to upgrade our relations with Israel.”
Would you agree to open a future Armenian Embassy in Jerusalem?
"We understand the delicate nature of this controversy, and we’ll make an effort to make the move a positive one.”
Artak Zakaryan, who until recently served as Armenia’s deputy defense minister and chairman of the Armenian-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship League, is the driving force behind the new flights between the two countries. “Our relationship with Israel is very important,” Zakaryan says. “Like us, Israel is a small country surrounded by enemies, and we would love for our economy to be as strong as yours. We are pushing to expand our tourist-related interaction to the defense arena – and not because we fear the Russians. I think we haven’t done enough to accomplish this and in the meantime Azerbaijan and Georgia managed to establish closer relations with Israel.”
“Israel needs to ask itself where its values lie,” says Dr. Chen Bram, a research fellow at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University. “On the one hand, Azerbaijan is an important ally for Israel, and we should not jeopardize this relationship. And of course relations with Turkey are particularly complex. On the other hand, maybe Israel can actually help bring about peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israel should be able to stand up to Azerbaijan and say, ‘We are your ally, but we would like to establish relations with Armenia, too, and you should not view this as a move that will harm our relations.’ This might cause a bit of an uproar at first, but it’s possible to do. I think it’s a shame Israel hasn’t made such an effort until now.”
Do you think Israel should recognize the Armenian Genocide?
“Israel should not have the sole rights to using the term genocide,” continues Bram. “A number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey have recognized the Armenian Genocide. I’m not saying it will go over smoothly, but things will eventually settle down. A number of Israeli representatives in Yerevan made inappropriate comments about the Jews’ unique connection with the Holocaust, but we need to accept that each genocide has its own special characteristics. And we cannot deny that the Armenian Genocide and the world’s reaction to it had a paramount effect on the Nazis’ ability to carry out the Shoah. Israel has lots of room to make improvements in this area. Luckily, the Armenians know how most Israelis feel about this issue, but this does not absolve us of the responsibility to make this change official.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.