Pragmatic lessons for Armenia from Israel/Palestine

When Trump revealed his “deal of the century” peace plan for the Middle East, there was uproar in the region. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to condemn the plan and cancel the meeting he was supposed to later have with Trump in Washington. Did he do this to appease to extremist Palestinians as a show of force; was it a noble patriotic stance which he took? — This was a faux-pas for various reasons most notably for the fact that Palestinians were (and still are) at the weakest they have ever been and the Israelis at their strongest. Thing is, Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu can indeed afford a hawkish-conservative stance (regardless if it’s right or wrong), unlike the Palestinians, who have refused a peace deal at least 4-5 times before and who constantly need to compromise their firm beliefs more and more at each turn of event. At this rate, an independent Palestinian State to even talk about in the future will not be possible. How does the situation in Israel/Palestine relate to Armenians with respect to their geopolitical place nestled between grand hostile countries and others who barely pass as friendly?

The parallels between the Armenians and both the Jews and Palestinians is thought-provoking;  it is quite an intriguing phenomenon which deserves to be looked at more closely. In this article, I argue that Armenians must learn to do the opposite of what the Palestinians have been doing, yet also learn the importance of realpolitik from Israel. 

From the start of the “Save Sheikh Jarrah” campaign to the 11-day clashes between Israel and Hamas, I saw many prominent Armenians on social media take the side of the Palestinians with slogans like “Armenians stand with Palestinians” or sharing the Palestinian narrative of the conflict and trying to create false equivalencies between what is happening in Israel/Palestine with what happened in Artsakh in 2020. They also justified their position with the fact that Israel aided Azerbaijan in the Artsakh war. 

Taking sides when you are one of the weakest states in the region, suffering from internal political turmoil, with a neighboring army constantly harassing your south eastern border, not to mention taking the side of the most irrelevant and unimportant side of a distant conflict is unnecessary and harmful to both Armenians and Armenia. I am willing to tolerate the Armenian government’s neutrality in the conflict, but condemn the average Armenians’ very strong position on Israel/Palestine. Just because Israel, one of the strongest states in the region, took the side of Azerbaijan during the war, does not mean Armenia should side with its foe who is of no geopolitical importance. There is no reason for enmity with any state, let alone Israel. During the Artsakh war in 2020, instead of recalling our (then newly appointed) ambassador from Tel Aviv, Armenia should have tried to be the friend, if not ally, of Israel that Azerbaijan could never become; of course, without ruining the strategic relationship Armenia has with Iran nor jeopardizing the lives of Armenians in Jerusalem. It’s a tricky situation which needs to be dealt with precision, sensitivity and wit.

I never believed Armenia proper’s territorial integrity would be under threat until recently (with the events in Syunik in May 2021) — not even when I was living in Armenia right after the November 2020 agreement, witnessed some locals burning their homes near Kapan, travelled around Artsakh, or even when I heard of Aliyev allegedly lay claim to southern Armenia. Our country is on life-support yet many Armenians, citizens and non-citizens alike, deem it more than reasonable to adopt polarized and delusional nationalistic positions in response to distant world conflicts.

Not all overlapping territorial claims and the subsequent conflicts which arise are just causes which are ideological polar-opposites. In other words, it is not always necessary to have black or white / victim or perpetrator dynamics. Armenians might have trouble understanding this as our Ottoman-Armenian ancestors were indeed helpless victims of genocide — no one came to our people’s aid. Though just because our kin suffered genocide in a certain period in time, does not mean we are forever prone to annihilation. It does not mean that all those who allegedly “suffer” in this world are victims (of genocide) either.

Armenians cannot afford to be the social justice warriors of the world. We need to adopt the pragmatism that Palestinians’ lack and the realpolitik which guides the Israeli government in foreign policy. It is difficult and unfortunate to turn a blind eye to any suffering, but if by doing so Armenia safeguards its existence and the Armenians’ continuity, then so be it. One could argue that aside from the Greeks, Assyrians and Yezidis, Armenians are beholden to no-one. Once Armenia becomes the regional power we all aspire for it to be, then we can google for a list of just causes to support. Justice is not intersectional as that one woke infographic on instagram made you think. Israel’s Netanyahu shakes hands with prominent antisemites such as Hungary’s Victor Orban and sells weapons to authoritarian governments with one goal in mind: safeguarding the lives of the Jews in the Jewish State and making sure that Israel is a strong contender in international affairs and security. 

Armenians should not only acknowledge how weak Armenia is, but know of how important this awareness is for a realistic vision for the future. It means that irredentism (in this case or any case) is a vice; we will never “reach” Baku and will never get vast territory from Turkey — not anytime soon, not ever. The lives of the 3,000,000 Armenians living in Armenia today is worth more — much more — than the lives of dead Armenians who were indeed slaughtered and forced to walk on death marches. They suffered, struggled and died so we can live. We shall honor our survival as a nation, specifically, for the sake of all those who were unable to live to see a free and independent Armenia. Israel was still an infant when David Ben-Gurion sought reparations from Germany for the Holocaust. This appalled Israelis; how dare we put a price tag on the suffering of our kin?! — well, Ben-Gurion was a visionary and saw it as necessary for building a sustainable state. If I am to judge, ideologically and morally, it is shameful to accept a dime from the state who sought to annihilate an entire people, but if we are to think pragmatically and realistically, financial reparations were indeed necessary. Armenia would not be disrespecting its dead if it seeks an explicit peace deal with Turkey and Azerbaijan (of course with the obvious never-ending list of conditions from, and subsequent positive implications on, both sides). We shall not be annihilated nor subjugated to humiliation based on toxic, nationalistic and delusional political discourse and the subsequent reckless decisions coming out of Armenia, the diaspora and of course the super- and regional-powers under whose mercy we are inclined to live forever (looking at you, Russia). We cannot hold Turkey and Azerbaijan accountable for the long list of tragedies which have befallen us without also taking responsibility for our long-list of wrongdoings and failures. The continuity of our independent state on our ancestral homeland is in danger. One needs to understand that aspiring to regain lost territory when in such a critical position is a mere illusion. I agree that it’s frustrating for any Armenian to hear this.

We are surrounded by hostile states who want to make Armenians’ lives miserable, but this does not technically have to be the case forever. The false nationalist narrative of “ancient hatred” with our neighbors is wrong. It pains me to write this, but Artsakh, as a disputed territory, must be put in its entirety on the negotiating table. Retaining land, ethnic-Armenian presence and the protection of our cultural heritage in Artsakh is not worth the death of young men — or worse, the absolute destruction of a whole sovereign population from their homeland. Whether Artsakh is rightfully ours or not is besides the point. We cannot afford another confrontation, nor can we afford to maintain the status quo, neither morally, mentally, physically, spiritually, demographically, diplomatically or financially! — We lost 5000 young men last year who had every reason to live! Why would Azerbaijan want to invade Armenia proper if there’s a just and sustainable peace between all the region’s countries with one another? — No ethnic/national group on this planet is inherently “evil” as some would like to strongly claim. Pan-Turkic expansionism is no excuse either; I feel compelled to ask: Why can’t Armenia re-define “pan-Turkism”? What’s so wrong with letting goods, services and people cross Armenian territory from Turkey to Azerbaijan and back? Why can’t Armenia benefit from this? 

Time for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey to re-imagine the phenomenon of “enmity.”

We can (and rightfully, should) benefit from both regional cooperation and a lasting peace (more specifically, lack of any prospective war); which implies putting our money and effort on things that actually matter such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, culture — definitely not the militarization of our society. Again, I advocate prioritizing the 3,000,000 Armenian citizens currently living in the territory of the Republic of Armenia, and of course those from Artsakh. Their lives matter. I advocate prioritizing economic growth over a lost cause, no matter how “just” it might be. The essentially eurocentric concepts of “war” and “nationalism” must be destroyed. Palestinians have refused land concessions since 1939 and have been on the losing side since. They could not have predicted the future but we indeed have a prototype of how our current actions and beliefs could determine ours — that is, if we will have a future at all. We need to learn from the Palestinians’ mistakes. There is nothing “righteous” or “fair” in the world of politics. Truth is, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis are scared. We do not need to “hate” Azerbaijan and Turkey, but to “love” Armenia. Neither them nor the dispossession they have previously caused us should define our patriotism. Remember, cherish and mourn but do not let trauma define who you are. Do not let fear dictate who you aspire to be as an Armenian. 

Arguably, all our political class since 1991 (or even 1920) cared mostly about elections and filling their pockets. Even today, all they seek is power. Their incompetence has been the cause of our pain and misery. They have power, because we have given them the permission and authority to have us live in fear. The days of Aram Manukian, founding father of our Republic, is long gone. The coming snap elections are decisive. They would dictate if we’re to go to war again or not, and if we truly want “peace” or a life in “perpetual conflict.” The ideal candidate does not exist on the coming ballots, but the 2018 hope for a better Armenia, which toppled the old corrupt and despicable regime, shall not die out in the hearts and minds of Armenians because of the mismanagement of the Pashinyan government and its many mistakes. The 2018 Velvet Revolution was about ordinary Armenians regaining their agency for a better and prosperous future from the oligarchy — it was never solely about Pashinyan! 

For a free, egalitarian and fraternal Armenia willing to listen and compromise for the sake of peace with its neighbors and the prosperity of its inhabitants and the region, I implore Armenian citizens and non-citizens alike to think critically and pragmatically, not emotionally.

Vote wisely.

Armenia is neither Israel, nor Palestine. Parallels exist, but absolute similarities in experiences or even established geopolitical interests with either camp are simply misjudgements.

Photo: an Israeli-made grenade I held in my hand in a residential apartment in Martuni, Artsakh, in December 2020.

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