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Armenia: Turkish-Israeli Relations Suffer Over Genocide

Relations between military allies Turkey and Israel took a turn for the worse last week when Turkish cabinet ministers and senior military officers boycotted the Israeli Embassy's national day reception in Ankara. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the boycott was in response to recent comments made by two Israeli ministers referring to the genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.

Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Attendance by senior Turkish officials at the Israeli Embassy's independence day reception on 10 May was the lowest since Turkey and Israel signed a military cooperation agreement four years ago that resulted in the two countries becoming close military and intelligence allies.

The two countries share common enemies, above all Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent Iran.

The cause of Turkish displeasure was comments late last month by two Israeli cabinet members marking the 85th anniversary of the outbreak of mass killings of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces. Turkey denies Armenian claims that the massacres constituted genocide.

Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid, attending an Armenian memorial ceremony in Jerusalem, announced that the mass killings of Jews, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Bosnians, Roma (Gypsies) and Rwandans will be a part of a new Israeli history curriculum dealing with genocide. The next day, Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin also said the massacre of Ottoman Turkey's Armenians was genocide.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded by summoning the Israeli charge d'affaires in Ankara for an explanation. But Turkish authorities were angered by Israel's response -- that the remarks did not constitute a policy change toward Ankara and that the two cabinet ministers had been expressing their personal views.

Turkish dailies on 12 May alleged that Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was not informed about the level of reaction against Israel at the Israeli reception. But whether that means he believes his government overreacted, or whether it is an attempt to absolve himself of responsibility, remains unclear.

A decree signed by Deputy Prime Minister Husamettin Ozkan recommended that government ministers not attend the Israeli reception because of the recent statements by two Israeli ministers. Senior military commanders also avoided the reception.

This is just the latest in a series of setbacks to Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkish authorities have been expressing concern recently that in the event of a rapprochement between Israel and Syria, Turkey will lose its significance as a military and intelligence partner for Israel.

But Turkey is also trying to improve its strained relations with Syria. Turkish Economy Minister Recep Onal led a trade delegation of 270 participants to Damascus last week. He concluded cooperation agreements in the fields of commerce, investment promotion, tourism, transport, oil, and customs.

Relations began to improve a year ago after Turkey threatened Syria with military action unless it deported Turkish-Kurdish insurgent leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan left Syria and, after spending several months on the run, was captured in Kenya with third-country assistance. Both the U.S. and Israel have denied they were involved.

Israeli-Turkish relations suffered three years ago, when Turkey rejected Israel's nomination for ambassador to Ankara over the nominee's contention that the Turkish massacres of Armenians constituted genocide. And in general, religiously Muslim but politically secular Turkey is under constant pressure from Iran and the Arab world to end its special relationship with Israel. The latest contretemps has done nothing to mollify the traditionally anti-Armenian Turkish press. A commentary in the Istanbul daily "Star" by Semih Idiz last week tried to diminish the significance of the massacres, saying that neither side really knows what happened.

Meanwhile, in another setback for Turkey, the Lebanese parliament on 11 May adopted a resolution "recognizing and condemning the [Armenian] genocide and voicing its complete support for the demands of [Lebanon's] Armenian citizens; considering the international recognition of the genocide as a pre-condition for the prevention of such possible crimes in the future."

Lebanon's Armenian community, the descendants of survivors of the 1915-16 genocide, is represented in the Lebanese parliament by six deputies.

Lebanon's relations with Turkey have never been friendly, and Turkey continues to be resented for its colonial past.

But the resolution marks a substantial change for Lebanon. Just three years ago, the Lebanese parliament issued a resolution that made no use of the word "genocide," but rather referred to what it described as "the massacres committed against the Armenian people."