Ignoring government objections, Israeli lawmakers discussed on Monday the possibility of recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Empire as genocide during a first-ever public hearing on the sensitive issue held in the Knesset.
The three-hour session organized by the Israeli parliament’s Education and Culture Committee was attended not only by its members but also government officials and representatives of the country’s Armenian and Turkish communities.
The committee made no decision in the end, saying that it will hold more discussions on the matter in the future.
Knesset panels have held such hearings in the past but only behind the closed doors, reflecting close political and security ties that bound Israel and Turkey until recently. This was the first time such a discussion was open to the public.
Hagop Sevan of the Armenian National Committee in Jerusalem called this fact a “small victory” for the local Armenians who have been pushing for an official Israeli recognition of the genocide.
Successive Israeli governments have opposed such recognition, citing the strategic character of the Turkish-Israeli relationship. This stance has officially not changed even after a sharp deterioration of those ties that followed last year’s deadly Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ferry bound for Gaza.
“I can say that at this time, recognition of this type can have very grave strategic implications,” Irit Lillian, a representative of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told the hearing on what the Knesset committee defined as the possibility of “the Jewish people's recognition of the Armenian genocide.”
“Our relations with Turkey today are so fragile and so delicate that there is no place to take them over the red line,” she said.
Ariyeh Eldad of the right-wing National Union party, who along with Zehava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz party initiated the hearing, dismissed these objections. “In the past it was wrong to bring up the issue because our ties with Turkey were good; now it is wrong because our ties with them are bad. When will the time be right?” Eldad said.
Gal-On spoke of Israel’s “moral and historical obligation” to recognize the genocide “especially when we are still struggling against Holocaust denial.” She cited in that regard the adoption by the French parliament of a bill criminalizing Armenian genocide denial.
Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin also attended the debate and signaled support for genocide recognition. He denied any connection between the hearing and the Turkish-Israeli tensions.
The Knesset committee chairman, Alex Miller, likewise denied any political reasons for the landmark development.