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Turkey, Israel and the Armenians

This is a cross-post from Michael Weiss

It is fair to say that Britons have grown more familiar than they’d like with the real estate habits of ultra-Orthodox Jews in east Jerusalem. Judging by the coverage this hyperactive sectarian element garners in the British press, Israeli settler development is apparently better disposed to determine the course of events in today’s Middle East than are the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s mullahs, the parliamentary intrigues of Iraqi Shia, or the Turkish prime minister’s threat of forced population transfers.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing about that last development-that is, if you’re a regular reader of Britain’s left-wing press, which has been eerily silent about the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent threat to expel 100,000 Armenians from Turkey. The threat was made in response to U.S. and Swedish resolutions recognizing as a genocide the Ottoman Empire’s mass murder of over 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. In an interview with the BBC’s Turkish Service on March 17, Erdogan said that in light of international pressure to get his country to face up to the history of its last Islamic caliphate, out of whose ruins the modern Kemalist nation was born, he could turn very angry indeed. "In my country there are 170,000 Armenians; 70,000 of them are citizens," Erdogan said. "We tolerate 100,000 more. So, what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: okay, time to go back to your country. Why? They are not my citizens. I am not obliged to keep them in my country."

There are three things to note about this thuggish statement. The first is that Erdogan’s demographics are in dispute: a new study conducted last year suggest that only 10,000 Armenians reside in Turkey illegally, half of them having fled after a devastating 1988 earthquake hit Armenia; the other half having slowly trickled over the years as migrant workers seeking respite from the anemic post-Soviet Armenian economy.

The second thing to note is that Ankara not only denies that the atrocities committed by the Ottomans against the Armenians in the midst of World War I amount to a genocide-this, despite historical consensus to the contrary and the fact that the term "genocide" itself was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish scholar who had examined the Armenian example in depth-but it has also made it illegal to acknowledge or debate these events publicly. The 2005 penal code proscribing such action equates it with "insulting Turkishness," an offense Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk found himself guilty of retroactively after he gave an interview acknowledging the genocide four months prior to the law’s implementation. He was prosecuted in 2005 and although the charges were eventually dropped, Pamuk’s books were burned in the streets.

Finally, Erdogan issued this demarche-which would arguably amount to ethnic cleansing if realized-while visiting the United Kingdom. However, the British government’s only response to it was to treat historical truth as a semantic distraction from the fine art of national reconciliation: "[T]he main concern of this Government is not what we call such horrific events but ensuring that the lessons are learnt, and relationships are re-built to ensure a peaceful and secure future for everyone living the region."

One would have expected The Guardian, which indeed reported on the nonbinding resolution passed in early March by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee recognizing and condemning the Armenian genocide, to be all over this story. It certainly was incensed at Downing Street’s sheepish reaction to theft of UK passports in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, widely assumed to have been carried out by Mossad, and now the cause of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s expulsion of Israel’s Mossad representative at the Israeli embassy in London. Britain may not have a large Armenian diaspora but it has got a large and vocal Kurdish one, and the Kurds, too, have had their difficulties as an ethnic minority in Turkey. Also, is Turkey not a Nato ally and a perennial candidate for admittance to the European Union?

Although The Guardian did address Erodgan’s provocation in one online article, its print edition was conspicuously silent in both the news and editorial sections. (Comment was absent at Comment is Free.) The Independent didn’t even bother with a digital write-up. Contrast this blackout to the conservative London Times’ lead coverage in its International section, on March 18, along with a lead editorial rightly reprimanding Erdogan. The centre-right Daily Telegraph’s also give his remarks prominent news coverage. Even the BBC, which broke the story on March 17 by simply recording what the Turkish premier said, neglected to make mention of it on the Six or Ten O’Clock News broadcasts the same day.

If Erdogan wanted to attract more English attention, he might have threatened to build apartments in Armenian neighborhoods in Turkey instead of threatening to repatriate their inhabitants. In stark contrast to their indifference his actual remarks received, The Guardian and The Independent newspapers have exhaustively reported the latest diplomatic row between the United States and Israel. To recap: Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to the holy land two weeks ago coincided with Israel’s announced construction plan for 1,600 new apartment units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of east Jerusalem. He was embarrassed, "condemned" the announcement, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given a 45-minute telephonic harangue by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had previously described his partial 10-month settlement "freeze" in the West Bank-which the Ramat Shlomo building permits did not violate-as "unprecedented."

The Jewish housing initiative heard round the world was concocted by Shas, a right-wing religious nationalist party in charge of Israel’s Interior Ministry, and apparently caught Netanyahu by surprise. The Independent dispatched their correspondent Donald Macinytre to Ramat Shlomo to interview settlers who claimed the land was given to them by God and the Obama is an anti-Semite. The Guardian reporter Ewan MacAskill, termed the U.S.-Israeli fracas the "worst crisis between the two countries for more than three decades."

Chris McGeal, the Guardian’s former Middle East correspondent, went further in an opinion piece in Comment is Free, arguing that the dispute effectively scuttled the U.S.-Israeli relationship and "repositioned" the Netanyahu government "from valuable US ally in the war on terror to where it really belongs – as the primary obstacle to peace." The Independent’s guest columnist Avi Shlaim believes that Israel is on its way to becoming a "pariah state" and that all of the $2 billion a year in U.S. military aid to the country should be abrogated until further notice: "Israelis are not renowned for their good manners," Shlaim opened in his March 21 essay, "but their treatment of Vice-President Joe Biden during his recent visit to their country went beyond chutzpah." Unmentioned here is that the top recipient of annual U.S. military largess, Afghanistan, has a government partly controlled by a messianic fringe group even more reactionary than Shas. It’s called the Taliban.

Not to be outdone in spotting dark days ahead in the Washington-Jerusalem nexus, The Independent wracked up a victory for Netanyahu by citing the x-factor Obama had evidently missed: unmatched formidability of the pro-Israel lobby in America. Rupert Cornwell’s editorial on March 18 stated:

But power lies in the perception of power, and no organisation in Washington is perceived to wield more power than AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee… Now the lobby is working to defuse the present row, naturally on Israel’s terms. First AIPAC expressed its "serious concern" at events, reminding (or perhaps warning) of the "vast bipartisan support in Congress and the American people" for the US/Israeli relationship. Then the Israeli ambassador here issued a statement claiming he had been "flagrantly misquoted" in reports saying he had warned his staff of the worst crisis in 35 years between the two countries. By Tuesday evening Ms Clinton herself, who last week was accusing Mr Netanhayu of insulting the US, poured further oil on the already quietening waters: "I don’t buy the notion of a crisis."

Given the left-wing British press’s concern with the power of ethnic minority lobbies in the United States, it’s doubly curious that the Erdogan flap was not cited if only for the opportunity to point out the obvious: The House Foreign Affairs Committee would never have passed its resolution without the persistent pressuring by the Armenian-American lobby. Erdogan himself made reference to this lobby in his BBC interview, and The Guardian recognized it as the key factor in Turkey’s reaction to the resolution’s passage-namely, its withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador from Washington. I quote from The Guardian’s Daniel Nasaw in his March 5 dispatch from the Capitol:

The house resolution is the product of intensive lobbying by Armenian-Americans. Last year the Armenian national committee of America spent $50,000 (£33,000) lobbying Congress on the resolution, which urged Barack Obama to characterise the events as genocide in an annual message commemorating the massacres.

No ambassador from either country was withdrawn over the Netanyahu-Biden fracas, and no Israeli politician threatened to expel the country’s Arab population in defiance of White House recriminations, though one can be sure if any had this threat would have made headlines in The Guardian and the Independent and wound up on BBC’s evening news broadcasts. Perhaps Prime Minister Erdogan would have been reached for comment.