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Deceptive Diplomacy: The Fractious Relationship Between Armenia and Israel

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

By Alfie Fairlie

Guest Feature

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Armenia and Israel: A Strained Relationship


When the words ‘Israeli foreign policy’ come to mind, you would not be blamed for immediately thinking of its Arab neighbours such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. After all, these countries remain high on the list of agendas when it comes to Israel considering its place on the international stage. However, there is one nation further afield which has created a fundamental dilemma for Israel’s diplomatic strategy: Armenia. This former Soviet nation has had a shaky, uncertain relationship with Israel to the point where even the ambassadors from both sides don’t know where they stand in terms of each other’s foreign policy. It should be unsurprising that Armenia is a top priority for diplomatic relations, considering that the ethnic Armenians in Israel have their own Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. However, this is under threat from a suspicious real estate deal which could force plenty of ethnic Armenians out of their community. This appears to be a common theme in the dilemma of Armenian-Israeli relations; a displaced identity. For Israel is not a stranger when it comes to debates on the displacement of people, but Armenia is a unique case. Not only are Armenians feeling isolated in Israel, but one major bone of contention is Israel’s role in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israel’s support of Azerbaijan and their willingness to supply weapons, has a link to the major displacement of Armenians from this war zone. It is clear that foreign policy impacts civilians who are underneath the protective umbrella of a diplomatic relationship. So, how exactly have Armenians fared from a relationship with Israel?


Little Yerevan: A Community Under Threat


The Armenian community in Israel has some major historical grounding to it, even before the birth of the nation. Often remarked as the ‘Holy Land’ by all three Abrahamic religions, the Armenians feel a spiritual connection to their home away from home. You cannot question how important faith is to the Armenian people, especially considering how Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion during the Middle Ages. Having held residence in Israel since the 4th Century, the Armenian Quarter is iconic for possessing the Christian sites of the Old City of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem resides 2,000 Armenians - a number which has been seen as a problem for fundamentalist Jews. With the 2023 election of the most right-wing government Israel has seen since its inception, there has been a dramatic increase in attacks on Armenian Christians. This mainly consists of mobs smashing up Armenian-owned businesses and vandalism which promotes the genocide of the Christians of Israel - a rather haunting idea which regurgitates the troubling plight of the Armenians which will be discussed later.


It is not just the actions of individual fundamentalists; some Armenians are now feeling under threat from their own Church community whom they fear is colluding with in-government corruption. The BBC broke the story of a real estate deal made by a Jewish Australian businessman who plans to convert a quarter of the Armenian Quarter into a major car parking complex. The Armenian community were desperately hoping this deal would result in affordable housing; instead, the space is being utilised for commercial purposes. Again, a repeat of history which is reminiscent of how Palestinian hotels were sold to foreign firms facing pressure from radical Jewish settlers. Many Armenians living in the area are now fearing displacement and a loss of culture as a result. After all, the Quarter hosts the surviving remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and these remnants tell the story of how Armenians were able to independently establish themselves in a foreign country away from home. For this antiquity to be sold off for the purpose of generating more income for the state, this feels like a major kick in the teeth for the Armenian people.


The Ghosts of Genocide


It goes without saying that the Armenian people have been permanently scarred from their experiences of persecution. For many, it is difficult to fathom that the systematic killing of a people based on their identity was occurring just 30 years before the Final Solution was drafted. The Armenian Genocide has been a source of camaraderie between the Jewish and Armenian populations of Israel. It is the relatability of both groups being the victims of mass genocide which has often resulted in solidarity between the two. Nevertheless, it is important to note that this recognition of genocide does not come from above. From the diplomatic arena surrounding the Israeli government, the argument on whether to recognise the killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire has generated confusion which has continued up to the present day.


The controversy surrounding the genocide and the impact this has had on relations between the two countries stems from a third player; Türkiye. Israel and Türkiye have enjoyed some positive diplomatic relations over the past few decades. This is mainly a diplomacy of dependence; Israel did need allies in the Arab world but there wasn’t much choice when it came to its Middle Eastern neighbours. One of Israel’s top priorities is to counter the ongoing threat from Iran. Türkiye is a useful nation given its strategic location - Israel needs to be on top of its surveillance and reconnaissance in order to predict any immediate threats to the nation. With increasing worries over Iranian nuclear capabilities, Türkiye can be the nation they lean on in their military plans. Hence why it is essential that Israel does not make any moves which could endanger this relationship.


So how does Armenia fit into this special relationship? The genocide is the one threat which could harm Israeli-Turkish relations. A major debate in both historical and political realms has been the status of the Armenian Genocide in its definition. Around the world, there are plenty of countries who do not recognise the deaths of thousands upon thousands as as genocide, but merely a tragedy. Israel has had difficulty on where it stands on this spectrum of debate. It cannot be denied that the expectation of a country which exists as a result of a genocide would be that it recognises similar events around the world for what they are. But, from the political perspective, recognition of the Armenian Genocide is a risky move should Israel do exactly that. Tensions on this issue came to a head in 1982 with an inaugural conference on the Holocaust and genocide throughout history. One of the lecturers had planned a presentation on the Armenian Genocide and how it can be compared to the Holocaust. Although historians warn not to place other genocides on the mass scale of Shoah, the programme for the conference seemed happy to allow this. However, Türkiye felt threatened by this potential recognition of their nation being responsible for ethnic cleansing, and as a result placed pressure on Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cancel the conference. The Turkish government even threatened to close their borders to Jewish refugees escaping Iran and Syria. Israel therefore had to make a choice; acknowledge the cleansing of Armenians or fundamentally ruin their relationship with Türkiye whilst putting many Jewish lives at risk. The resulting choice has therefore had long-reaching consequences on the Armenian population, who feel ignored and rejected by the Israeli government.


The War At Home


Of course, foreign policy is a two-way street; you cannot rely on a country to do you favours when you will not become involved in their internal affairs. The same goes for Armenian-Israeli relations, with Israel becoming embroiled in Armenia’s most pressing matter. In between the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan lies the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been a source of conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whilst the rest of the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and their own responses to it, the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments were preoccupied with a flare up of the conflict in September 2020. The fundamental impact of the conflict was the major displacement of the ethnic Armenian population, as they became refugees seeking a safe haven in their own country. Having been pushed out of Nagorno-Karabakh - which originally served as a safe haven itself with the genocide - Armenian populations across the world simply don’t know where they stand on the world map.


A breakdown of relations between Armenia and Israel can be drawn back to the epicentre which is this conflict. It appears that Israel trying to prioritise its strategic relations with other countries has come into play in its role in this conflict. The question on the Israeli foreign minister’s mind was this: what to do with Azerbaijan? Israel could see the benefits it could reap from having a relationship with Azerbaijan which motivated the country to provide them support in the conflict. For starters, Israel’s economy revolves around its accoladed military industrial complex as it has provided weapons to over 40 countries. This is a purely transactional relationship; Israel provides the bullets, and the recipient country provides energy and oil. This is exactly the case with Azerbaijan, known for its rich oil fields and energy infrastructure. In addition to this, Azerbaijan is a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme which means that it easily subscribes to Israel’s ethos. This rejects the days of the Warsaw Pact where Azerbaijan was forced into an alliance with Moscow as a Soviet state, and instead leans more towards the West. As a result, Azerbaijan would be an important ally for Israel as this group views Iran as a major security concern. If Azerbaijan leaned more towards Iran, Israeli support would not even be on the cards. Continuing on with the topic of the transactional relationship, Azerbaijan has made promises to Israel that they can use their military bases and airfields should an Israeli-Iranian conflict take place.


The human cost of Israel’s support to Azerbaijan would obviously have an impact on Armenian relations. A report published by Amnesty International on the indiscriminate attacks on the civilian populations on both sides of the conflict makes for uncomfortable reading, and brings to light questions over how far Israel respects Armenia as a nation. When speaking of Israeli weapons being used in Nagorno-Karabakh, the report produces the case study of the city of Stepanakert. Stepanakert is a significant target in itself, for the Azerbaijani population were expelled from the city in 1988 by the Armenians. The city saw possibly the worst attack on civilians in the 2020 conflict, as an EXTRA ballistic missile was fired upon homes located near military infrastructure. As a result, Amnesty International implies that Israel may have blood on its hands in Nagorno-Karabakh as 4 civilians were killed, as well as over a dozen injured. This ballistic missile is one of Israel’s stand-out weapons in its military field, and for it to be used on such a fundamental target which holds major significance for both Armenia and Azerbaijan is a major blow to Israel’s relations with the former.


Yerevan’s reaction to Israel’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh is rather telling. Despite the Armenian embassy in Tel Aviv only being open for just over a year, Yerevan immediately recalled its ambassador and closed down the embassy. In a move of retaliation, Israel now conducts its diplomatic mission via Tbilisi in Georgia. A clear symbol that relations between the two countries have ultimately soured.


Reflection… but any Reconciliation?


So where does Israel go from here? It seems unlikely that there will be an open conflict between Armenia and Israel, for many Israeli broadsheet newspapers have spoken of how the loss of these relations is not too major for the country. Does this mean that Israel has somewhat of a disregard for the Armenians? Is this why there has been very little acknowledgement from the government on the sale of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem? Only time will tell whether the two nations are able to reconcile from these tensions.


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