JERUSALEM -- Israeli lawmakers dedicated a session of parliament Tuesday to discussing whether to commemorate the Armenian genocide, a controversial and sensitive issue that could further aggravate the country's strained relations with Turkey.
When ties were stronger, Israel refrained from official recognition of the killings of minority Armenians early in the 1900s as genocide, citing diplomatic reasons. But diplomatic relations have been strained since Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists in 2010 during an attempt to block a flotilla of aid bound for the Gaza Strip.
Some Israeli lawmakers say the time has come for their nation to finally divorce the issue from diplomatic concerns and take a clear, moral stance.
"The Armenian genocide has been swept under the rug" for fear of upsetting foreign relations, said Zehava Galon, who initiated the debate. "We must not politicize this matter," said Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, a longtime supporter of Israel making a clear statement of recognition.
The Knesset came to no decision on the motion Tuesday but plans to hold another session on the issue.
The genocide of 1915 to 1918 claimed the lives of about 1.2 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place, saying the number of deaths was much smaller and the victims were killed in chaos of World War I and its aftermath.
The issue has strained Turkey's ties with several countries advancing legislation to recognize the genocide. In Israel's case, this might push the relations beyond repair.
The Israeli motion calling for a commemoration, which was filed by left-wing opposition lawmakers but supported by some conservatives as well, drew criticism from some members of the Knesset. Robert Tivayev, who recently joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, said the issue was being used for political purposes.
"This is not a matter for politicians but for academics," he said. "They alone must determine whether genocide took place or not."
If academics and historians rule the events as genocide, Tivayev said, "Israel should be the first to recognize it."
The Knesset debate came a day before the state comptroller was scheduled to publish a report on the 2010 flotilla deaths. According to early reports, the report will criticize Netanyahu for underestimating the potential seriousness of the flotilla interdiction.
Last month, Turkey drafted a 144-page indictment of senior Israeli military officers, including Gabi Ashkenazi and Eliezer Marom, then chief of staff and navy commander respectively.Turkish news reports say the trial of Israeli generals will start in November, after authorities approved the indictment seeking multiple life sentences for the officers, who have been advised by Israeli authorities to refrain from visiting Turkey.
Despite a desire to mend relations with Turkey, Israel has refused to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla events. The standoff has left diplomatic and military relations strained, although civilian trade continues.
On occasion, the strain spills over into other arenas. Recently, Israel was excluded from the Global Counterterrorism Forum meeting after the U.S. reportedly accepted a Turkish veto. Israel's claims that Turkey had blocked its officials from participation in a NATO summit were denied by the U.S.
U.S. officials have urged Israel to repair its ties with Turkey to enhance regional strategic stability.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Protesters wave flags during a May 31 rally in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, marking the second anniversary of the killing of nine Turks when Israeli naval commandos sought to block a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip. Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images