2004.08.12 -- Haaretz: Armenian Lobbyists Are Facing a Lost Cause

Haaretz International
Thu., August 12, 2004 Av 25, 5764

Armenian lobbyists are facing a lost cause

By Nathan Guttman

Activists again failed to obtain U.S. congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide. The obstacles they face include America's ties with Turkey and the Jewish lobby.

WASHINGTON - For a moment it seemed to Armenian activists in the U.S. that they had made progress toward obtaining U.S. congressional recognition of the massacre perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenian people 98 years ago. U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, succeeded on July 15 in getting approval from the House of Representatives for an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, which would bar Turkey from using the annual American aid it receives to hire political lobbyists in Washington to lobby against the decision recognizing the Armenian genocide. Ostensibly, a marginal amendment and not terribly important, but in the eyes of supporters of the Armenian cause in the U.S., even approval of a minor amendment is considered an achievement.

The battle to gain recognition of the Armenian genocide by the U.S. Congress is transformed annually into a fight between the small group of Armenian supporters in Congress and the rest of the world - the Turkish representatives and the lobbyists working on their behalf, the administration, the supports of the administration in Congress, and also several of the large Jewish organizations. When the U.S. tries to maintain good relations with Turkey, the price is paid by those who want to see the American Congress include the Armenian genocide in the decision denouncing such actions, Resolution 193, which also recognizes the Armenian genocide as such, approval of which has been delayed.

The minor achievement in Congress, which is now referred to as the Schiff Amendment, did not last long. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives - Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt - issued an especially sharply worded statement the day after the amendment was approved, in which they made it clear that the amendment was unacceptable to them and that they would seek to annul it when the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill came before the conference committee that attempts to bridge the gap between the Senate and House of Representatives positions, before a bill is sent to the president for his signature. When the House leadership mobilizes to kill a bill, chances are the effort will be successful and therefore it seems that despite the Schiff Amendment, no one will deduct from U.S. aid to Turkey the sums it uses to finance activities against the resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.

`The resolution is dead'

Even the chances of House Resolution 193 now seem slimmer than ever, given that at the conclusion of their statement, the House majority leaders declared that "Furthermore, we have no intention of scheduling H.Res. 193, as reported out of the Judiciary Committee in April, during the remainder of this Congress." The practical significance of that is the resolution is a lost cause. Elizabeth Chouldjian, of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), believes there is a still a chance for getting the amendment passed. The organization is currently urging its supporters to call and write to the House of Representatives in order to overturn the decision of the House leadership and nevertheless schedule a vote on the resolution. "We're getting good response in the House of Representatives and have 40 co-sponsors on a similar resolution in the Senate," she said, but history teaches that even interest groups that are stronger than the Armenian lobby have no chance when the administration and the Congressional leadership are working against them. Another Armenian activist openly admitted that "the resolution is dead" and this year again there is no chance of passing the resolution that recognizes the Armenian genocide.

Don't upset Turkey

The main obstacle facing supporters of the Armenian cause in the U.S. and their attempts to gain recognition for the Armenian genocide is the administration's basic position and that of many others, whereby friendship with Turkey is more important than anything else. The Turkish government, via its diplomatic representatives and lobbyists, has made it very clear to the Americans that any recognition of the Armenian genocide will be perceived in Ankara as a slap in the face and will adversely affect ties between the two countries.

So, for example, when France was considering a similar law, the Turks threatened a series of sanctions and in the end recalled their ambassador from Paris for six months. In the U.S., the situation is much more sensitive - the Americans need Turkey as a crucial ally in its region, as a base for U.S. forces and primarily, to maintain relative quiet in northern Iraq. "Our relationship with Turkey is too important to us to allow it to be in any way damaged by a poorly crafted and ultimately meaningless amendment," said senior House leaders in their reaction to the Schiff Amendment. The administration maintains a similar position. The debate does not revolve around the question of whether there was an Armenian genocide or its scope, but around contemporary politics and Turkey's possible reaction if someone upsets them with regard to this issue.

The Jewish community in the U.S. and the Israel issue are also entwined in the pressure campaign preventing approval of the resolution. "The community is certainly a player on this issue," said a key Jewish activist in Washington, who like many others involved in the issue, asked to remain off the record. Representatives of Jewish organizations reported "a sense of discomfort," as one described it, when coming to explain their position on the Armenian resolution; on one hand, the Jews as a community are sensitive to the tragedy experienced by the Armenian people, but on the other hand, there are Israel-Turkey relations to consider. "We have always had a level of uncertainty regarding the balance that should be kept between the moral factors and the strategic interests," one Jewish organization official cautiously explained.

Last year, Jewish organizations, primarily the American Jewish Committee (AJC), have been more active in thwarting the resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. This year the politicians managed of their own accord and the resolution will be postponed even without the involvement of Jewish organizations. But a central activists in a Jewish organization involved in this matter clarified that if necessary, he would not hesitate to again exert pressure to ensure the resolution is not passed and the Turks remain satisfied. The same activist said he had received numerous requests in the past to work against the Armenian cause in Congress. "The State Department asked us, other people in the administration did, even the Turkish Jewish community asked us to act on this issue," he said. The prevailing opinion among the large Jewish organizations is that "Turkey's relations with the United States and Israel are too important for us to deal with this subject," according to one community activist who was involved in blocking Resolution 193 last year. The more expansive explanation, offered in meetings and discussions, is that "the Armenian genocide is a matter for historians, not for legislators."

Even though ties between Israel and Turkey are the determining factor in decision-making in the Jewish community, there is also some weight to the matter of definition. The American term proposed in the resolution refers to "genocide" of the Armenians, while the Nazis' acts against the Jews during World War II are defined as "Holocaust." The distinction does indeed exist, but according to many Jewish activists, there are some who feel discomfort over the mention of the Armenian genocide alongside the Jewish Holocaust, for fear of cheapening the concept of a holocaust.

The Jewish community's involvement in the issue of the Armenian genocide is affected by the status of Israel-Turkey relations. One senior organizational official related that during the honeymoon years of Turkish-Israeli ties, the Jewish organizations were more enthusiastic about openly helping Turkey thwart previous Armenian-related resolutions in Congress. Now, he adds, since ties have cooled off somewhat, many Jewish activists are trying to lower their profile in this matter. The organized Jewish community in the U.S. has close ties with the Turkish government and one of Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayep Erdogan's senior advisers even promised recently at a Washington meeting with a Jewish audience that Erdogan's criticism of Israel was misunderstood and that Turkey will do everything to restore ties to the way they were.

Armenians for Kerry

The insistence of the administration and Congressional Republicans to bar the resolution on Armenian genocide does not make President George Bush very popular among Armenians on the eve of elections. One of the large Armenian organizations in the U.S. has already publicly endorsed Kerry and the Democrats have two groups of Armenians for Kerry working for them. So far, no Armenian group has voiced support for Bush. But the Armenian community's electoral power is not significant. There an currently an estimate 1-1.5 million Americans of Armenian descent, but most are second, third or fourth-generation immigrants and therefore, not all of them vote based on the candidates' views on faraway Armenia. "There are those who base their decision on the Armenian issue, those who vote only based on their political views and those who vote based on different reasons altogether," explained Ross Vartian, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

However, the Armenian community has also kept track of President Bush's record. He promised in his 2000 election campaign to recognize the Armenian genocide and after his election worked to thwart such resolutions; he allocated a smaller amount of foreign aid to Armenia than he had recommended to Congress and favored issues relating to Azerbaijan over Armenian ones; and the Armenians in the U.S. were insulted when Bush's administration announced that Armenians residing in the U.S. would be required to register at the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as foreigners from Arab and Muslim countries were required to do after September 11. Following pressure from the community, the decision was retracted after 48 hours.

Next year, the world will mark the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Activists in the U.S. hope the international pressure and perhaps also the results of the U.S. election will enable them to obtain approval of the resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide in the next session of Congress. Past experience shows that the chances of that happening are slim.

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