The Two Survivors

A comprehensive survey of Israeli-Armenian relations in the shadow of the latest Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Armenian protesters in New York march in opposition to media bias, October 2020.

In a cable dated July 10, 1915, Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, sent a dispatch from Constantinople to Washington, D.C., raising the alarm on the unfolding genocide of the Armenian people. He uncovered the “persecution of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions in a systematic attempt to bring destruction and destitution on them.”

Morgenthau Sr., who was Jewish, was unable to prevent the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. But his large-scale humanitarian efforts are often remembered by descendants of survivors around the world. His eyewitness accounts in Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, published in 1918, served as one of the first primary sources of the Armenian Genocide, shedding light on the atrocities of mass extermination.

Only one generation later, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.—Henry Morgenthau’s son—met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 16, 1944, to discuss freeing Jews from Nazi-led Europe. He said that he was “deeply disturbed” about the failure of the U.S. State Department “to take any effective action to save the remaining Jews in Europe.”

Morgenthau, Jr. cited the Armenian Genocide, referring to his father’s efforts in “getting the Armenians out of Turkey and saving their lives.” Following the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, the State of Israel was established in 1948. Armenia, which experienced a brief stint of independence in 1920 before being annexed by the Soviet Union, finally became a republic in 1991. The modern states of Israel and Armenia, however, are rooted in mighty fallen kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in 723 BC, and the Armenian Empire in 1375 AD.

When Armenia achieved independence at the turn of the twenty-first century, there was the anticipation of establishing close ties with Israel. As custodians of two of the world’s oldest civilizations, the two nations had much in common. They were both persecuted people who had lived the majority of their existence under subjugation, with a strong feeling of survivorhood and deep ties to their faith and culture. The established presence of Armenians in Jerusalem for thousands of years also paved the way for dialogue.

But it wasn’t until Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018, and the election of democratic leader Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister, that serious discussions and advances in diplomatic relations began to take shape. The opening of the Armenian Embassy in Tel Aviv on September 17, 2020 was a monumental turning point punctuating the growing cooperation between the countries. This rapprochement, however, was short-lived.

Just two weeks later, on October 1, the Republic of Armenia recalled its Ambassador Armen Smbatian. This major step was taken after confirmation that Israel was selling arms, including explosive cluster munitions and drones, to Azerbaijan, who had been using them against the Armenian civilian population in Nagorno-Karabakh since the beginning of a renewed hostilities between the countries on September 27th. Azerbaijan, who has been heavily backed by Turkey, pushed to seize the remaining territory that they had laid claim to since Stalin signed over the historic Armenian lands to the Soviet Republic in 1924. The conflict harks back to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when the majority Armenian population of the region exercised their right for self-determination in 1988, calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to unify with Armenia. Azerbaijan, for its part, asserted that Nagorno-Karabakh was legally their autonomous region. Once both countries emerged from the Soviet Union as independent states, fighting escalated into a full-blown war from 1992 until 1994, when a ceasefire was implemented. Since then, the territory, which is governed by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), has been at the center of unsuccessful peace talks regarding the status of the disputed territory, mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group.

On Monday, November 9, 2020, after 44 days of intense fighting, a multilateral armistice agreement was signed by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and the Russian Federation’s President Vladimir Putin. The agreement dictated major territorial concessions by Armenia to Azerbaijan, including the districts of Shushi, Kalbajar, and Lachin, among others. The war and its consequential impact shook up budding relationships, principally that between Armenia and Israel.

Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that Israel’s relationship with Turkey has been a “complicating factor” in developing more fruitful relations with Armenia. The geopolitics of the region have isolated Armenia and have forced it to rely on Iran—a country that opposes Israel’s existence.

“Armenia’s dependence on Israel is in part because of its closed borders,” says Stronski, who served as senior analyst for Russian domestic politics in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “But I think that the government of Armenia also doesn’t offer a whole lot to Israel and is not a producer of things Israel needs, such as energy or security, which connected Israel to other former Soviet states.”

The growing defense relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan over the last decade was also on Armenia’s radar as Israel became a key provider of high-tech weapons to Azerbaijan, providing a catalyst for Armenia to enhance its relationship with Israel.

Although Turkey and Israel have had strong bilateral diplomatic and military ties throughout the twentieth century, there has been a dampening in relations over the last decade, in part due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interjections into the Israel-Palestinian conflict and his assertion of Turkey’s historical claims to Jerusalem.

In the same vein, relations between Iran and Armenia have not been as solid, particularly after the Velvet Revolution of 2018 which brought the democratic leader Nikol Pashinyan to power. Though the emergence of a pro-Western nation could be an issue for neighboring Iran, Stronski highlights that this leadership change “gives Israel a better partner.”

While the time was ripe for Armenia to finally open its embassy in Israel, the move signaled changes in the region, upending the traditional view that the South Caucasus, which consist of the former Soviet Union bloc and Turkey, a player in the Middle East, remain separate entities.

“They’re all in close proximity to each other,” Stronski notes. “So the problems and issues are merging and the Caucasus have become more tied to the Middle East, particularly through Syria and Turkey.”

A consequence of these changes is the current war between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, complicating what was once a burgeoning relationship with Israel.

“The Armenians view this war as an existential fight for the survival of their nation and they view it as a second genocide,” Stronski says. “While the Turks are playing a very unhelpful role in providing full diplomatic cover and active military support, I don’t see Israel doing that.”

Israel is seen as playing more of a “secondary role” through its weapons supplies, though Stronski does raise the possibility that Israel could use its leverage in Azerbaijan to de-escalate the conflict—a resolution that the OSCE Minsk Group, including Russia, France and the U.S., has not been able to accomplish.

“Certainly, there will be a tough road ahead to get things back on track with Israel,” says Stronski. “But there are Armenian populations across the Middle East, and Israel is one of the major powers in the Middle East, so I do think once this war is over that Armenia will still want to have those avenues open.”

The lack of formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Israel’s government may also be a hindering factor in Armenia-Israel relations. Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, recognizes a thread between the Armenians and the Jews, who “until recently have lived exclusively in the diaspora and both carry the burden of genocide and the memory of genocide.”

Despite this association, a rift exists, which Smith attributes to the two groups of people who are advocates of their identity, raising the possibility that “people who suffer aren’t necessarily the best allies of others who suffer.”

“They have to fight for their identity to reclaim the past that has been lost and in the case of the Armenian community, even the possibility of international recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” said Smith, who currently holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. “Fighting against denial for a century is exhausting and I think it makes the Armenian community continuously have to fight for their identity.”

The geopolitics of the region, where Turkey is a leading power, has allowed for denial of the Armenian Genocide to prevail, thus creating more of a divide between Israel and Armenia at a diplomatic level. Recent staunch efforts by Israel and Armenia to move towards diplomatic relations are now at great risk, because of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though Smith notes that it is “regrettable” that Azerbaijan is in possession of Israeli hardware, he doesn’t consider this to be an Israeli political statement, because the defense industry in Israel is an economic sector independent from political decision-making.

“If there is evidence that the actions of Azerbaijan in that region rise to the level of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, then I think Israel should think very differently about its continued relationship with Azerbaijan on a legal level,” he said.

Politicians, however, can also invoke a moral desire to prevent a country’s weapons being used on civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. A number of scholars have acknowledged that the violence against the Armenians has risen to the threshold stated in the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

“As it stands, this is a conflict between warring parties, but you do see strong evidence of ethnic cleansing of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh,” says Smith. “Because of the overwhelming force of Azerbaijan, backed by its allies, civilians have made the smart choice to become refugees and the likelihood of them returning is very low.”

The USC Shoah Foundation, which preserves eye-witness testimonies of the Holocaust and genocides in one of the largest digital collections of its kind in the world, provides the personal experiences of suffering through a human lens.

“What happens in these crises is that the politics overshadows the situation, the voice of the individual gets lost and it becomes about numbers,” says Smith. In his view, it’s important to listen to those people now in order to prevent missing “a vital part of the story.”

Regardless of the resolution that has been reached, it will be incumbent upon the governments of Armenia and Israel to initiate dialogue about their future relationship.

“The establishment of diplomatic relations is essential to anything that comes after this conflict, irrespective of Israel’s role in it, and to preserve the political, cultural, and economic relations of the two countries through diplomacy,” Smith observes.

Historically, Armenians have had a symbolic presence in Israel and Palestine across the last 2,000 years. They are centered in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, where the Armenian Patriarchate is located, as well as a number of Armenian schools and churches. The connection between Armenians and Israelis seems stronger than that of Turkey and Azerbaijan, though Israel’s position towards Armenia is “weak,” according to Dr. Bedross Der Matossian.

“Israel has more to gain from Azerbaijan and Turkey in terms of realpolitik for national interests than from Armenia,” said Der Matossian, who is vice-chair of the Department of History and the Associate Director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Armenia’s geostrategic position makes it challenging for the relationship between Israel and Armenia to flourish.”

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Der Matossian highlights the extensive business and military relationships between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel as to why there haven’t been more developments in Armenia-Israeli relations, particularly since “Azerbaijan is a more viable ally for Israel, where 20-30% of Israel’s oil runs through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline,” he notes.

During the April 2016 four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh, it was discovered that high-tech equipment sold by Israel to Azerbaijan, specifically Israeli-manufactured drones, had been launched from Israel. Though neither Israel nor Armenia’s foreign ministries commented on current arms transactions between Israel and Azerbaijan for this article, Armenia’s foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan has stated that “Israel should stop this deadly business with Azerbaijan.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John M. Evans, says “I do think that Israel’s sale of high-tech weapons to Azerbaijan will not be forgotten any time soon by Armenians.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, there had been increased collaborations between Israel and Armenia regarding technology, tourism, education, and medicine, fields which could play a dominant role in strengthening relations, according to Der Matossian.

What won’t affect relations, in his view, is the Armenian Genocide issue, since Armenia does have fruitful relationships with countries who do not formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Instead, Der Matossian sees the Israeli government’s wavering in recognizing the Armenian Genocide as a “pressure card”: bringing the debate to the Knesset whenever it wants something from Turkey, where the proposed resolution is eventually allowed to subside.

“There is a substantial intellectual class in Israel who are committed to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, but it still hasn’t happened on a governmental level and we don’t know when it will,” he says.

There was a time when Armenians did indeed have a positive dynamic with Israeli leaders, including former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

“They were very close friends with the Armenians,” remarks Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, an executive committee member of the World Council of Churches. “But when the right-wing Likud party came into power, the relationship changed because the interests changed.”

He emphasizes the fact that an “overwhelming majority of Jewish people acknowledge the Armenian Genocide as do every single one of my Jewish friends, but of course the government is not ready yet.”

Israeli-Armenian Arpi Shotigian sees first-hand the Israeli groups that demonstrate alongside Armenians on the Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24, which is consistently covered by local Israeli media.

“There is a disparity between what the government does to protect its political interests, whereas the common people do recognize and feel sorry,” said Shotigian, an attorney born and raised in Jaffa.

Looking beyond recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the government of Armenia was well aware of Israel’s efforts to normalize relations with Arab countries in the Middle East and the Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates; it sought to establish a more stable relationship from the onset by foregoing the customary step of posting a regional representative to Israel, instead opening a full-fledged embassy in Israel.

“I think the Armenians read the cards very well by opening an embassy here in Tel Aviv because they understand Israel is a major player and the Embassy is a strategic step towards having closer relations due to the political interests in the region,” said Shotigian.

The Embassy’s opening ceremony took place, symbolically, on the eve of the Jewish New Year. Ambassador Armen Smbatian said at the time that it will give “new impetus” to its relations with Israel, while also securing the Armenian Orthodox Church’s ongoing presence in the Holy Land. While Israel was pleased with this step forward, Iran expressed dismay.

The opening of the Embassy came on the heels of an increase in tourism ties between Israel and Armenia, with two direct flights a week between Tel Aviv and Yerevan.

“Israelis are known to be very curious people who travel all over the world,” Shotigian observes. “A lot of them have already gone to Armenia, with positive reviews, and there are many others who want to go and have a proper holiday.”

The Armenian presence in Israel peaked in 1948, when about 20,000-30,000 Armenians lived in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Now only 250 families remain. The initial mass emigration of Armenians, according to Shotigian, occurred not too long after Israel’s independence, as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which the Armenians did not want to get involved in. An estimated 10,000 people from Armenia, including Jews, moved to Israel in the 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union. They reside in various parts of the country, although a large chunk of the Armenian population of Israel continue to live in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem.

“We always try to categorize ourselves in Israel and we are categorized as well,” said Shotigian. “We’re neutral but we are a small community and immigration has not yet been addressed formally by leaders.”

Philanthropist Annie Simonian Totah, who founded the Totah Family Foundation with her husband Sami, has contributed significantly to both the Armenian and Jewish communities in the U.S., Armenia and Israel, in the fields of healthcare, education and culture. A visible activist in the Washington D.C. political scene for the past four decades, she has become known as a bridge-builder between the Jewish and Armenian communities, which have positively impacted Armenia-Israel relations.

She observed early on the areas in which Israel excelled and the mechanisms it had in place that could help the newly independent Republic of Armenia in 1991. These include the Armenian Tree Project, inspired by the Jewish National Fund, and Birthright Armenia, modeled after Birthright Israel, which aims to foster a closer bond between the diaspora and the homeland.

The opening of the Armenian Embassy in Israel, according to Totah, was a long time coming, emerging as a real possibility after the election of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in April 2018. A year later, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigor Hovannissian, a former Ambassador of Armenia to the United States, visited Israel, followed by Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. A formal presidential decree by President Armen Sarkissian in February 2020 led to the opening of the Armenian Embassy in Tel Aviv.

“It was a wise move by the Armenian government to forge a partnership with Israel because the leadership understands that Armenia is a blockaded country surrounded by enemies,” Totah says. She notes that Armenia is forced to reply on Iran as its economic lifeline, an arrangement that is not well-regarded by European countries, the United States, and Israel. “I believe Armenia will benefit greatly from Israel, which during its 72 years of existence, has become a global leader in advanced military systems, technology, healthcare, agriculture and research.”Due to her influence and ability to make connections between the two countries, Totah was seriously considered as Armenia’s first Ambassador to Israel in the early 2000s, during President Robert Kocharian’s administration. The complexities of the Second Intifada, along with Israel’s hesitance to open an embassy in Yerevan, meant that this possibility was only momentary.

The commonalities between the two countries, in terms of faith, family values, tradition, and suffering, can be considered the bedrock for a valuable friendship and mutually beneficial goals. Like Israel, Armenia has a significant amount of brain power. Totah believes that the two countries can be a “guiding light in their respective regions.”

The war, however, has been a “strong blow” to the relationship between Israel and Armenia, which had hitherto been on an upward trajectory. “Because of different political agendas, Israel and American Jewish organizations have remained silent,” Totah says. “They are waiting on the sidelines, like so many other major international powers.”

This recent Israeli stance stands in stark contrast to last fall, when American Jewish organizations brought in their share of support for the passage of resolutions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the historic recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. Congress. Totah credits the active mobilization of Jewish American organizations, that helped them reach that symbolic milestone together.

“On moral grounds, Israel should recognize the Armenian Genocide, knowing very well that the Armenian Genocide was the precursor of the Holocaust,” says Totah, reflecting on the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel’s staunch efforts to establish formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Totah, however, doesn’t see the rebuilding of the relationship between Israel and Armenia anytime soon, since the “wounds are very deep…I’m hopeful that once the Nagorno-Karabakh war is peacefully and justly resolved, diplomatic relations would resume,” she says. “Furthermore, there will be a new beginning whereby through diplomacy, negotiations and cooperation, Israel will officially recognize the Armenian Genocide and pave the way to brighter tomorrows.”

Dr. Zeev Levin, Research Fellow at The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for The Advancement of Peace at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, asserted that “international relations are based on interests, and up to this point there have been more mutual interests with Armenian opponents than with Armenia itself, and vice versa.”

While acknowledging that the war is a “barbaric act,” Dr. Levin stated that private firms in Israel are selling weapons to Azerbaijan and if asked, would also sell to Armenia. The lukewarm relationship in years past is embedded in deeper geopolitical issues, he opines.

“After thirty years Armenia finally sent an Ambassador to Israel,” Dr. Levin says. “It could have made a difference if they sent one twenty years earlier, but it’s never too late to start building cooperation.”

He hopes that both territorial conflicts—including Israel-Palestine—will “find a solution in the near future next to the negotiation table.”

In his memoirs, Ambassador Morgenthau Sr. wrote, “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this,” referring to the Armenian Genocide. When world leaders ignored the first genocide of the twentieth century and left the perpetrators unpunished, it gave the green light to Adolf Hitler to execute the Holocaust against the Jews, stating: “Who, after all, remembers the annihilation of Armenians?”

Though the relationship between Armenia and Israel remains on shaky ground, there is a shared history ingrained in the champions of truth and human rights. This kinship was emphasized when soil from Henry Morgenthau Sr’s grave in New York was transported to Yerevan, Armenia, and laid at the Armenian Genocide Memorial’s Tsisdernagapert Wall of Remembrance in April 1999. The meaningful ceremony took place in the presence of his grandson, Henry Morgenthau III, who acknowledged that his grandfather “took it upon himself to go completely outside the bounds of diplomacy and perhaps legality” in order to uphold moral authority: a lesson that remains as relevant as ever today.

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