Israel Denies It Asked U.S. Groups to Lobby Against Armenian Memorial

Both Israel and major American Jewish organizations are publicly shying away from a brewing controversy over a U.S. Senate resolution to establish a memorial day for Armenian victims of Turkish genocide said to have occurred more than 70 years ago.

But reports in the Israeli press indicate that, in pursuit of improved diplomatic relations with Turkey, Israel may have quietly asked influential American Jewish organizations to lobby against the measure.

The Senate Judiciary Committee adopted the resolution by a vote of 8-6 on Oct. 17. It calls for April 24, 1990, to be designated as a “National Day of Remembrance of the 75th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.” The resolution now goes to the full Senate.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have refused to confirm or deny news reports that Israel asked American Jewish groups to step in. But they have confirmed that the Israeli Embassy in Washington is “studying” the situation.

In response to the publicity, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asserted here Monday that Israel would not try to block the bill, which was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.).

Israel’s official position of non-involvement was echoed in New York by spokespersons for several major Jewish organizations active on Capitol Hill, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a number of its constituents.

These groups denied that they had been asked by Israel to lobby on the issue.

TURKEY READY TO IMPROVE TIES

But the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported Sunday that Turkey is ready to raise the level of diplomatic representation in Israel if Jewish organizations in the United States become active against an Armenian memorial day.

Ankara downgraded relations with Israel in 1981. The two countries presently are represented on the charge d’affaires level. Nevertheless, Turkey is the only Moslem country other than Egypt that has diplomatic relations with Israel.

The feeling among observers in Israel is that, despite official denials, Israeli officials are more sensitive to the desires of the Turkish government to block an Armenian memorial day in the United States than to those of the Armenian people to have one enacted.

Israel views Turkey as a possible bridge to the Moslem world. last week, Turkey was the only Moslem country to vote with Israel in the annual Arab challenge to Israel’s status in the United Nations.

But open support for the Turkish position could be embarrassing for Israel and the American Jewish community, in light of Jewish sensitivity to the subject of genocide and in view of the fact that Congress observes an annual memorial day for the Holocaust, of which Jews were the primary victims.

An editorial Sunday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot called Israel’s reported attempts to appease the Turks “stupid.”

“What has been inflicted upon the Armenians in 1915 certainly belongs in the category of genocide, a terrible tragedy which the Jewish people, more than any other people in the world, must be sensitive toward,” the editorial said.

ADMINISTRATION OPPOSES BILL

But some officials at American Jewish organizations said privately that passage of the Dole resolution “would not be helpful” to either U.S.-Turkish relations or Israeli-Turkish relations.

The slaughter of Armenians living in Turkey took place from 1915 to 1923 when, according to the Armenian community, more than 1.5 million Armenians living in Turkey were said to have been massacred by Turks. But Turkey considers the charge of genocide to be libelous.

In Washington last week, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler told reporters that the Bush administration opposes the Dole resolution.

Tutwiler explained that although the administration “is sensitive to the tragic suffering” of the Armenians, “we are equally mindful of our close relationship and strong friendship with Turkey and of the differing views of how the terrible events of that period should properly be characterized.”

(JTA staff writer Allison Kaplan in New York contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY