Obama’s Failure to Press Erdogan to Apologize for the Armenian Genocide
President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel since he became president had the potential to yield many tangible results, not the least of which could have been a demand on the part of the leader of the free world that Hamas revoke its genocidal charter against Israel.
While it produced many inspirational moments, important symbolic gestures, and an eloquent speech before the Jerusalem Convention Center, its carefully staged photo opportunities seem, in retrospect, to be somewhat ephemeral, and the pressure for Netanyahu to apologize to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan ultimately, we believe, counterproductive.
Israel and Turkey, of course, have had a tumultuous relationship in recent years. Although the two countries were allies for many decades, based on security ties, Erdogan has gone out of his way to cause relations to deteriorate and antagonize Israelis. He has repeatedly and unfairly condemned Israeli policy on every level, accused Israel of crimes against humanity (after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in response to Hamas’ launching of rockets in 2008), and even stormed out of a conversation with Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, humiliating the venerable Israeli leader and Nobel laureate. In November 2012, he accused Israel of state terrorism and of an “attempt at ethnic cleansing.” As another example of Erdogan’s vitriol, in February of this year, while speaking in Vienna at the official opening of the fifth UN Alliance of Civilizations Global Forums, he called Zionism “a crime against humanity.”
The distrust between the two countries culminated in May 2010, when, in a brazen maneuver, a flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief sought to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza – designed exclusively to keep bombs out of Hamas terrorist hands – and refused to allow inspections by Israeli forces. (IHH is known to be a jihadist organization cloaked in the mantle of a charity, and it is a member organization of Union for Good, whose president is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s top sharia jurist. The U.S. Senate also voted in June 2010 to recommend that Obama investigate IHH as a first step before labeling it a terrorist organization.)
Warnings from Israel to the Turkish flotilla to turn around were ignored, and the militants on board, wearing orange life vests, protective vests, and gas masks, attacked Israeli naval commandos who boarded the ship. The Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, was full of activists armed with iron bars and knives, a curious collection of equipment for humanitarians delivering relief supplies. In the ensuing standoff, as Israel tried to defend itself, tragically nine Turks died.
Had the flotilla succeeded in breaking the Gaza blockade, Israel could have looked forward to even more bombs and rockets raining down on its hospitals and nurseries.
In September 2011, a United Nations report mentioned “serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH.” A BBC documentary also sided with Israel, and determined that Israel had responded to a violent premeditated attack. As further corroboration of the Turks’ intent, Israel released nearly 20 videos, made using night-vision technology, that showed activists beating Israeli soldiers with metal pipes and a chair and a soldier being pushed off the deck and thrown onto a lower deck headfirst, nearly dying. Lastly, in June 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released footage of a rally on board the Mavi Marmara before the raid in which the IHH president declared to dozens of activists, “And we say: ‘If you [Israel] send the commandos, we will throw you down from here to the sea and you will be humiliated in front of the whole world.'” Participating passengers chant “millions of martyrs marching to Gaza!”
While Obama’s attempt to strengthen ties in the Middle East is understandable, what is less logical is his attempt to strong-arm Israel into apologizing and making concessions, as Erdogan outlined a series of conditions for full normalization with Israel, including compensation to the victims, and, more significantly, a lifting of the naval blockade of Gaza.
The episode with the Mavi Marmara should have been part of Obama’s calculus during his trip, as it sheds light on Turkish behavior toward Israel as well as on other examples of Turkey’s stubborn denial of historical facts, including its refusal to speak honestly about its role in the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1923, which resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
If Obama were true to his word as a presidential candidate in 2008 and interested in a significant success in the Middle East, he should have pushed Erdogan to reciprocate and apologize to the long-suffering Armenians for this first genocide in modern history. As discussed in a resolution by the House of Representatives, this massacre is “documented with overwhelming evidence in the national archives of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, the Vatican and many other countries…” To win support from Armenians while running for office, Sen. Obama said on January 19, 2008, “Two years ago, I criticized … the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term ‘genocide’ to describe Turkey’s slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915…. The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence… As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian genocide resolution, and as president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”
But instead of working to fulfill his promise, President Obama and his administration repeatedly have avoided the term “genocide,” and worked behind the scenes to prevent Congress from recognizing it. Indeed, although in March 2010, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 23-22 on a resolution to recognize the Armenian deaths officially, the administration came out swinging. In Guatemala, she told reporters, “The Obama administration strongly opposes the resolution that was passed by only one vote by the House committee and will work very hard to make sure it does not go to the House floor.” According to the Associated Press, “a senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said there was an understanding with the Democratic leadership in Congress that the resolution would not go to a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
After the vote, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the United States and warned the Obama administration about the ramifications if a vote ever reached the House floor.
As displayed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as Hitler prepared to attack Poland without provocation in 1939, he dismissed objections by saying “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” setting the stage for the Holocaust. Ronald Reagan recognized this threat in 1981 when he said, “like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians, which followed it — and like too many other persecutions of too many other people — the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”
More than 20 countries and 42 U.S. states already have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide. As Obama seeks to shape his Middle East policy and consider his legacy over the next four years, he should consider the promises he made as a young candidate and recognize a massacre that never should be forgotten.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published his newest book, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” He lives in Englewood.