Monday, September 1, 2008

Interview with Israeli MP Ze'ev Elkin

First published in April 12, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Knesset member says Azerbaijan shows greater interest than Armenians in Genocide debate

Ze’ev Elkin discusses Knesset debate

On March 26, members of Israel’s legislature voted to hold a first-ever parliamentary debate on the Armenian Genocide. The Knesset will revisit the issue again next month when it returns from recess.

On April 9 our Washington editor Emil Sanamyan spoke by telephone with one of the main supporters of the discussion, Knesset Member Ze’ev Elkin. What follows is the English translation of the interview, which was conducted in Russian.

Reporter: How did you become involved in the discussion of the Armenian Genocide?

Elkin: Prior to my move to Israel [from the Soviet Union in 1990], I had a number of opportunities to visit Yerevan, and I know both the city and had traveled through the country quite a bit as well. So the subject of the Genocide is not new for me.

After my election to the Knesset [in 2006], I asked to become the chair of the Israel-Armenian parliamentary friendship group. And I have also become involved in the Genocide issue.

There is a kind of a tradition in the Knesset, where every year one of the members tries to raise this subject.

In previous years such an effort was made by the late Yuri Shtern [former Soviet Jewish activist who was Knesset member between 1996 and 2007 and was Mr. Elkin’s predecessor as chair of the Armenia-Israel parliamentary friendship group].

And then the issue was taken up by Knesset Member Chaim Oron, whose brother Prof. Yair Auron has written on the Genocide and its denial.

Typically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, working through the parliamentary majority, would block any debate out of concern for relations with Turkey.

So the problem was not so much about views of individual Knesset members. There are several examples of members supporting discussion while they were in opposition and then, while in the majority, deferring to the government and voting against discussion.

My objective was to win the support from coalition majority to have the issue added to the Knesset’s agenda for the first time ever. And at least in part I succeeded in that [on March 26] the coalition members voted unanimously to do so, making it a historic development.

Reporter: As a member of the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party were you under any pressure to defer to the party leadership and the government?

Elkin: We do have a tradition in the Knesset where members do sometimes vote in accordance with their personal views and not just in line with the party’s position. And I personally tend to vote quite independently on many issues. And I am in a kind of opposition to the prime minister on his approach toward negotiations with Palestinians.

On this particular issue, I did have discussions with the Foreign Minister [Tzipi Livni] and she was not particularly happy about the vote, but there was not any great deal of pressure from the party.

[On April 1] the governing coalition parties did manage [contrary to my wishes] to send the issue to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and not the Education
and Culture Committee.

The reason for my position was that hearings in the former committee are frequently behind closed doors and this would not create the public resonance that I wish to achieve in Israel. And, secondly, members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are more likely to look at this issue through the prism of Israel’s relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

And since relations between Armenia and Israel are not all that developed, there is no Armenian ambassador here, and there is no great deal of economic links between the two countries, the decision on the motion is likely to be based on pragmatic considerations.

But at least formally there is not yet a final determination on which committee will look at the issue, since we have appealed the [April 1] decision and our appeal will be considered after the end of the parliamentary recess next month.

Reporter: According to Turkish media, Israeli president Shimon Peres has assured the chair of the Turkish parliament’s foreign relations committee Murat Mercan, who visited Israel earlier this week, that there is no need to worry about the Armenian Genocide discussion in the Knesset.

According to your observations, how much support does the initiative have in the Israeli parliament and what is the likelihood of its passage?

Elkin: I’ll put it this way: for nearly 20 years the [Armenian Genocide] issue could not even be added to the Knesset’s agenda, and [on March 26] the decision to do so was made unanimously, including by one cabinet member. [Editor’s note: In Israel cabinet members are also members of the Knesset.]

This was a surprising development for Israeli media, considering that in the past the Foreign Ministry would typically manage to block any debate.

So I would not try to predict a result. I am not certain that we will manage to win recognition in this round. And I am sure there will be an effort to postpone any discussion and there will be more pressure from the Foreign Ministry, which will be citing the importance of Turkey.

I am a realist and realize that there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. But I have to say that on the emotional level an overwhelming majority of the Knesset supports recognition. But when other factors get involved, the outcome becomes less certain. In the very least this would be a lesson, and if not this time around, then sometime in the future we will be successful.

Reporter: How would explain that the most vocal opposition to this issue came on behalf of Azerbaijan from Knesset member Yosef Shagal, who is a native of Baku,
and chairs the Azerbaijan friendship group? On the surface, at least, this issue has no relation to Azerbaijan.

Elkin: The issue does not in fact concern Azerbaijan directly. But the amount of attention given to this issue in the Azerbaijani media and by others on behalf of Azerbaijan has been quite extraordinary. I was swamped with letters of protest from Azerbaijan and a few from Azerbaijan natives living in Israel.

I have heard quite a bit from the Azerbaijani media – and I have to say that you are the first Armenian news outlet to contact me for an interview. Although I have seen
some reprints in Armenian websites from Israeli media, there were no direct inquiries.

Azerbaijan has great sensitivity to this subject since they view any discussion of the issue as an Armenian diplomatic success. And there has been great deal of pressure [from Azerbaijan] in the last several weeks especially on me as a member of the governing party.

At the same time, I have to note that there has not been any intense attention from the Armenian side – either from the diaspora or the government – to this issue. And this does not make things easier for me. The fact that both Turkey and Azerbaijan are intensively lobbying the Knesset, and there is no similar effort from the Armenian side, makes the challenge we have even more difficult.

Reporter: What kind of involvement from the Armenian side would you have liked to see?

Elkin: Well starting just with communication by supporters of this issue with members of the Knesset – all member e-mails are available on the web site, as are phone numbers. All parliament members pay attention to the public, even if that public is not part of their electorate.

Since there is not much of Armenian or Armenia-connected electorate in Israel, from that point of view, too, it makes more sense to support the Turkish or Azerbaijani position.

Like I said, I have been swamped by e-mails from Azerbaijan arguing against this initiative and I have not seen much activity from the Armenian side. And, if I, as one of the main proponents, have not felt any Armenian interest in this subject, then certainly neither had the 119 other Knesset members.

And on the official level, to this day there has been no reaction to the Knesset discussion from either the Armenian parliament or the Foreign Ministry. It is particularly surprising since I have seen coverage of the issue in the Armenian media, at least online.

[Editor’s note: Armenia’s ambassador to France Edward Nalbandian also serves as ambassador to Israel; while Aram Safarian, a former journalist and Foreign Ministry
official, elected to parliament last year on the Prosperous Armenia Party list, is Mr. Elkin’s Armenia counterpart. On April 10, the Head of the Jewish community of Armenia, Rimma Varzhapetyan-Feller, addressed an open letter to the Knesset, urging it to “demonstrate reasonableness and adopt the Resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.]

Reporter: It seems every time the Armenian Genocide is discussed in any national parliament, there are threats from Turkey, and now also from Azerbaijan, that the interests of that country would be hurt. And in the case of discussions in Israel and even the United States, it is said that the Jewish communities in these countries would be negatively affected. Have you heard such rhetoric this time around?

Elkin: Not from the countries themselves, no. But such rhetoric has come from some of the leaders of the Azerbaijani Jewish community, and particularly those who have already emigrated from Azerbaijan, that somehow discussion of the Genocide would hurt the Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

I think this is very wrong and irresponsible of them. Azerbaijan’s Jewish community should not be held hostage to Israeli politics. This is akin to Soviet Union’s efforts to hold its Jewish citizens responsible for Israel’s policies, which was certainly absurd.

As to bilateral relations between Israel and Turkey, I certainly realize that they can potentially be negatively impacted considering Turkey’s position on the Armenian Genocide. I would certainly regret that since I have nothing against either Turkey, or Azerbaijan for that matter. And I do value Turkey’s importance as an ally, since Israel has very few allies to begin with.

But I believe that in this case our moral responsibilities should trump any other considerations.

And Turkey will eventually have to resign itself to the fact that the parliament of Israel, like parliaments of other countries before it, will take a position on this issue.

Were Israel to do this in a clear cut way, this would also help push Turkey toward revising its position. As long as Turkey senses that it can, through pressure, influence countries such as Israel, [it is easier for Turkey to stick to its current position].

At the same time, since Armenia is not really engaging Israel all that much – be that bilaterally or through votes in the United Nations – this does not help Israel [take a position that it should].

In the end, the real issue is that both Turkey and Azerbaijan are engaging Israel more actively than does Armenia. One example of this is that Armenia does not even have a diplomatic representative in Israel, just an honorary consul.

So, one of my intentions is to contribute to expansion of relations between Israel and Armenia.

About Ze’ev Elkin

Mr. Elkin was elected to the Knesset on the ticket of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party in 2006. In addition to several committee assignments, Mr. Elkin is co-chair of the Israel-Armenia inter-parliamentary friendship group.

Prior to his election Mr. Elkin taught at the University of Jerusalem and was an advisor to the director of the education department of Sokhnut, the Jewish Agency Of Israel, which assists and encourages Jews worldwide to settle Israel.

Mr. Elkin earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Jewish history at the Hebrew University, where he is completing a Ph.D.

Born in 1971 in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Mr. Elkin moved to Israel in 1990.

From the U.S.: 011-972-26-408-145

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