Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Professor Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin is an ISGAP Research Fellow. He lectures in  Political Studies and leads the research program on Post-Soviet Conflicts at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He also serves as the Academic Chairman of the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish Studies in Herzliya.

In April and early May 2024, four Latin American states—St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas—officially recognized the Palestinian Authority (PA) as an independent state. On May 28, they were followed by three EU members—Ireland, Spain and Norway—which were joined a week later by Slovenia. Two weeks after that Armenia followed suit, turning this country into another player, albeit a minor one, in the big Middle East game.

The Palestinian theme: who, when, and why?

The State of Palestine was originally proclaimed in Algeria by the PLO-controlled Palestinian National Council in November 1988. Some Soviet republics—Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—recognized the Palestinian state when they were still a part of the USSR and before establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Others, such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, recognized it shortly after the collapse of the USSR. But in the decades that followed, all these countries, except for the Russian Federation, used this recognition merely as an opportunity to gain some diplomatic dividends. That is, they shared the position of the vast majority of UN members that recognized “Arab Palestine,” which is that recognition is more of a “diplomatic gesture” or an intention that will not be realized in practice until Israel and the PA/PLO come to an agreement on all contentious issues in direct bilateral negotiations.

As in the past, the current unilateral recognition of the yet non-existent Palestinian state has no practical significance. The full international  recognition of any new state claiming independence requires the support of at least two-thirds of UN member states and the approval of the Security Council. And while it would not be a challenge to gather the necessary 129 votes from among the 193 members of the UN General Assembly, the Palestinian bid is unlikely to pass in the Security Council, overriding the veto of any of its five permanent members.

Another obstacle is the questionable validity of such an application under international law, which is constantly invoked in Ramallah and various world capitals. According to a detailed analysis of the relevant international legal norms by Richard N. Haass, former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, and most recently president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the “right of ethnic groups to secede” must meet five basic criteria. The first is the existence of a stable and historically proven collective identity for such groups. The second, a convincing argument that the status quo would cause them irreparable political, physical, and economic damage. The third, fourth, and fifth criteria, finally, require a clear indication of the willingness of the population to exercise its right to political self-determination, the viability of the new state, and assurances that it will not undermine the stability of neighboring countries.

It is clear that the Palestinian bid does not even come close to meeting any of these criteria. Even if the Palestinians were to get their own state, there is no doubt that it would quickly turn into another failed state. In contrast, economic proximity to one of the most advanced technological superpowers, Israel, provides the Arabs of the West Bank with a standard of living no worse—and in many respects better—than that of any neighboring Arab country. The population of the Gaza Strip, where radical Islamists from the Hamas terrorist group seized power in 2007 and which has every chance of extending its control to the West Bank if an independent Palestinian state is established, is largely excluded from this trend. Added to this is the fact that terror is actually encouraged by the current PA  leadership and that more than 80 percent of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria and two-thirds of those in Gaza Strip have expressed support for the October 7 massacre perpetrated by Hamas. Against this background, discussing whether or not the idea of Palestinian Arab statehood meets the criterion of not posing a threat to neighboring countries is  faintly ridiculous.

Such circumstances make it very difficult, if not impossible, to create another Arab state “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea” next to Israel—or, in the dreams of the haters, instead of Israel—even though the adherents of this idea will strive to realize it “at any cost.” Indeed, this is true of all attempts over the last twenty years to revive the “two-state solution,” which was dealt a fatal blow by an unprecedented wave of Palestinian Arab terrorism in 2000-2003 (known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada), which was sponsored by the PLO leadership.

However, the situation today is very different. The  pretext for the current return of the seemingly exhausted topic of a Palestinian state to the forefront of the international agenda is the DF operation in the Gaza Strip in response to the Hamas massacre of October 7, in which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 250 others were captured and taken to Gaza as hostages. Sympathy for the Jewish state around the world did not last long. It was soon replaced by a powerful wave of pronounced antisemitic sentiment, anti-Zionist and antisemitic narratives in the media landscape, and violent incidents, the scale of which, especially in Western countries, was many times greater than the record high levels seen in previous years.

Much of this has come under the cover of groundless accusations regarding Israel’s “genocide of Palestinians,” including the widespread and unthinking dissemination of Hamas’s unverified data on the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the Strip as a sole responsibility of the IDF  – although it is commonly accepted that these civilians represent a much smaller proportion of the total number of casualties than Hamas claims.

It is equally telling that, in most cases, the instigators of vandalism, verbal and physical attacks, hate speech on social media, harassment and intimidation against Jews do not even try to disguise their purely antisemitic activities as “legitimate criticism of Israel.”

It is  not surprising that the holders of pronounced pro-Palestinian and open or latent anti-Israel views, who traditionally set the tone in certain influential political circles in Dublin, Madrid, Oslo, and other Western capitals, were ready to take advantage of the situation. They probably perceive what is happening on campuses, in the streets, and online in their countries as a kind of public legitimization of their views on the Middle East conflict. The presence of four small Caribbean states in the “recognition parade” for a Palestinian state can be explained by the neo-Marxist, pro-Palestinian trend that has swept Latin America in recent years. However, Armenia’s presence in this company is informed by different motives, as explained below.

The case of Armenia

At first glance, the reasons for this position of the government in Yerevan should be sought in the emotional and geopolitical sphere. First, there is Israel’s alleged unwillingness to recognize the Armenian  massacre (the mass extermination of the Armenian population of Cilicia by the Turks at the end of World War I) as an event similar to the Holocaust of European Jewry. The second reason is Jerusalem’s growing strategic partnership with Armenia’s main adversary, Azerbaijan, in the sphere of civil and military technologies, which involves the supply of Azerbaijani energy resources to Israel and of advanced Israeli weapons to the Azerbaijani army. With the help of the latter, Azerbaijan scored a quick and convincing victory in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. In addition, Israel and Azerbaijan jointly confront challenges and threats from Iran, which in turn is a strategic partner and patron of Armenia.

Against this background, Yerevan’s pro-Palestinian démarche might look like an act of “revenge” against Jerusalem, if such a geopolitical arrangement had not been unfolding for almost a decade and a half, during which Armenia refrained from recognizing a “Palestinian state.” What can one say about the current move? On the one hand, it is a curtsy to Tehran after its first direct armed clash with Israel in April this year. On the other hand, it is aimed at winning the favor of Western countries that promote the idea of a two-state solution, with which Yerevan is now trying to get closer in the hope of receiving material and diplomatic support from them.

However, the situation is not that simple. Armenia is unlikely to receive substantially more dividends than it already receives from Iran. As for the United States and the European Union, they are indeed irritated by the Israeli leadership’s unwillingness to hand over Gaza to the Palestinian Authority after the end of the active phase of hostilities, as a step toward restoring “Palestinian unity” and as a prologue to the creation of a “renewed Palestinian state.” However, one should not ignore the fact that the members of the pro-American bloc, who condemned the Iranian attack and supported Israel in repelling it, may well interpret Yerevan’s diplomatic gesture as a show of solidarity with Iran. This will not strengthen Armenia’s position with the members of this bloc, not least because its military, diplomatic and especially economic partnership with Moscow continues.

Everything falls into place if we interpret the diplomatic move of the Armenian Government not so much as a pro-Palestinian act but as an anti-Israel one, in the spirit of the aforementioned critics of the Jewish state in Western countries. The official statement of the Armenian foreign ministry of June 21, which recognized the “State of Palestine” and condemned “Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure and violence against the civilian population of Palestine,” while also calling for the release of Israeli hostages, struck a similar tone. It also demanded an immediate ceasefire.

It is difficult to say to what extent this foreign policy vision of the country’s authorities is purely pragmatic and to what extent it reflects the personal outlook of politicians. Likewise, it is difficult to say to what extent this far from friendly attitude toward Israel at the top is fueled by messages from certain social circles and to what extent it influences public sentiment. However, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in the local and transnational Armenian public space is hard to ignore. It includes widespread antisemitic propaganda and incitement on social networks, as well as the glorification of Hamas and other totalitarian Islamist or ultra-right and neo-fascist movements. It is also worth noting the increase in antisemitic incidents and outbreaks following the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, which local radical nationalists automatically blamed on Israel.

The consequences of this situation were predictable, and they were not long in coming. On the night of June 11, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Armenia’s only synagogue and community center, “Mordechai Navi,” was attacked for the fourth time in eight months. According to representatives of the Jewish community, the building was damaged by a vandal. As on the previous two occasions, the authorities opened a criminal case regarding a planned attack on a religious community center but immediately stated that the incident had nothing to do with Armenia itself, as the attacker was allegedly a tourist—a Russian citizen.

No confirmation of this version has been presented, no names have been publicized, and no requests have been made to the law enforcement agencies of the Russian Federation in this regard. In the opinion of observers, the official bodies once again intend to ignore this story. Officials have stated that they have no way to find the perpetrators, as they are not citizens of Armenia and left the country immediately after committing the terrorist act. It has been reported that investigations into three past attacks on Jewish facilities (including two arson attempts) also failed and that no security was ever assigned to the synagogue building.

As previously noted, the authorities of post-Soviet republics, concerned about their reputations, are extremely reluctant to register and include cases of antisemitic attacks and vandalism in official statistics, and Armenia is no exception. Post-Soviet authorities often expect the same from the leadership of local Jewish communities.

International organizations, Jewish communities, and think tanks, including the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), have repeatedly pointed out the problematic nature of this approach, especially since October 7, 2023. In effect, it encourages antisemites to engage in further acts of hate speech and hate crimes and prevents the development of adequate policies to combat and prevent these destructive processes.

It appears that these efforts are yielding results. In Yerevan, for example, the leaders of the Jewish community previously acceded to the requests or hints of the authorities to demonstrate their civic patriotism. Thus, after the attempted arson attack on the synagogue in November 2023, Armenia’s Chief Rabbi Gershon-Meir Burshtein hastened to confirm that this act of vandalism “was not political, but staged and demonstrative in order to falsely accuse Armenians of antisemitism.” This time the community refused to stay silent or misinterpret what had happened and reported the incident on its Telegram channels and social media.

Clearly, Jewish leaders in all countries today must demand that decision-makers eradicate the roots of the problem: incitement, violence, and hate crimes against Jews and Israel, regardless of the pseudo-liberal or patriotic packaging in which they are presented. Any other option  tantamount rewarding antisemitism and terrorism.