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With eye on Turkey, Israel debates Armenia deaths

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ARON HELLER | June 12, 2012 02:57 PM EST | AP

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli parliament debated Tuesday whether to recognize the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago as genocide, a move that would enrage Turkey and further strain already tense ties between the two countries.

For years, Israel has refrained from taking up the issue for fear of angering Turkey, which until recently was its closest ally in the Muslim world. But as ties have frayed under the Islamic-oriented rule of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that has changed.

No vote was taken Tuesday. Parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin denied the debate was related to the deteriorating ties with Turkey.

"The Turks will definitely be angry, but there is no intent to provoke, only to remember," he told Israel's Army Radio. "The free world must remember, to learn the lessons so it won't happen again."

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated, and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, leading to losses on both sides.

The issue is highly sensitive in Turkey, and the country has lashed out angrily at any country that has promoted recognition of the genocide.

The Israeli parliamentary resolution was co-sponsored by opposing lawmakers.

Zahava Galon, chair of the dovish Meretz party, said Israel had a moral obligation to recognize genocides elsewhere, given the history of the Nazi Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were systematically murdered during World War II.

"The need to recognize the Armenian genocide and oppose its denial derives first and foremost from what we went through in the Jewish genocide," she told Army Radio. "I am not comparing, and you can't compare the two, but this requires us to be sensitive to the suffering of others."

Her co-sponsor, Arieh Eldad of the ultranationalist National Union faction, dismissed accusations that raising the issue now was ill-timed.

"A few years ago people said we couldn't talk about it because of our good relations with Turkey. Now people say we can't talk about it because of our bad relations with Turkey," he said. "When you don't want to deal with something moral and ethical, there are always those who will say it is not the right time."

Israeli-Turkish relations began to unravel as Erdogan embarked on a campaign to make Turkey a regional power. His shift away from the Western camp has put Turkey at odds with Israel.

Once-flourishing tourism from Israel to Turkey fell off, and Turkey canceled joint military exercises with Israel.

The low point came in 2010 after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in a raid on a flotilla that tried to breach Israel's Gaza blockade. Israel's refusal to apologize for the flotilla killings sent relations deteriorating even further.