Israeli-Polish spat exposes Netanyahu to criticism at home

Netanyahu failed to host a summit that would have showcased his diplomatic talents and opened himself to being presented as soft on anti-Semitism in Europe.
Thursday 21/02/2019
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) poses with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, February 14. (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) poses with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, February 14. (Reuters)

LONDON - A diplomatic spat between Poland and Israel regarding the European country’s treatment of Jews during World War II exposed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to criticism at home ahead of April’s elections.

During his visit to Warsaw to attend a conference on the Middle East, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that “the Poles” had collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The Israeli prime minister’s office said Netanyahu was misquoted and that he did not mean to implicate all Poles or the Polish nation but rather some Poles. Netanyahu did not make the statement himself, directing questions to his spokeswoman.

The remarks sparked outrage in Poland, which downgraded its participation at a summit of the Visegrad Group — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — in Israel. Warsaw said it would send Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz instead of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and called on Israel to issue an explanation.

Israel’s new foreign minister, Israel Katz, fuelled tensions later with his own remarks.

‘The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk’

“I am the child of Holocaust survivors and like every Israeli and Jew, I will not compromise over the memory of the Holocaust,” Katz told media outlets i24 and Israel Hayom.

“We will neither forgive nor forget and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. How did (former Israeli Prime Minister) Yitzhak Shamir put it — they killed his father: ‘The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.’

“No one will tell us how to express our positions and opinions and how to respect the memory of the fallen. These positions are very clear and no one among us will compromise on them.”

Katz’s statement led Poland to cancel its participation at the summit in Israel. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek branded Katz’s comments as “shameful, scandalous and slanderous” and called for an apology.

US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher also called on Israel to apologise to Poland over Katz’s comments. The two countries “shouldn’t be using that kind of rhetoric. We are too important to each other not to work these things out,” said Mosbacher.

Israeli bid to undermine the EU 

In a bid to save face, Netanyahu hosted a series of meetings with his Hungarian, Czech and Slovakian counterparts but the political victory of hosting the first Visegrad Group summit in Israel was missed.

Netanyahu has been seeking to strengthen Israel’s ties with central European countries to undermine EU criticism of its treatment of the Palestinians. Right-wing governments in central and eastern Europe have expressed dislike for politicians in Brussels and found in Israel an enemy’s enemy.

“Israeli officials noted that the meeting of the Visegrad Group in Jerusalem would have sent a message to the EU that Israel has strong allies inside the union that it can turn to for support. And, the officials said, the Visegrad countries were interested in holding the summit in Jerusalem — the first time it was to be held outside of Europe — to assert their foreign policy independence from Brussels, as well as to try to draw closer to Washington through strong public ties with Israel,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told Agence France-Presse that Netanyahu’s strategy “is to work with the central and eastern countries, the Visegrad Group, to neutralise pressures coming from other parts of the EU, particularly Brussels.”

Netanyahu accused of appeasing right-wing Europeans

Israeli critics of Netanyahu, however, accuse the prime minister of appeasing right-wing Europeans at the expense of whitewashing anti-Semitism in Europe.

“Nations whose wartime governments or citizens actually did turn a blind eye or actively collaborate with Nazi Germany in persecuting, deporting and murdering Jews in the Holocaust will have their history whitewashed by Netanyahu if they are currently politically aligned with him. Poland, Hungary and Lithuania have all been laundered by the Prime Minister of History,” wrote Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer.

“His more thoughtful supporters (those who don’t just parrot his line) explain that this is simply necessary ‘realpolitik.’ Netanyahu needs these countries to counterbalance the European Union foreign policy in his favour, so making some compromises is worthwhile but the problem with this argument, beyond the moral implications, is that realpolitik is about politics, not rewriting history,” he added.

“The relationship Netanyahu has built with two of the Visegrad leaders, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s [Mateusz] Morawiecki, is based on maintaining the nationalist right-wing politicians’ cherished historical narratives. In one chance remark, Netanyahu showed how pointless these attempts are.”

Controversial Polish law 

The Warsaw-Tel Aviv spat has its roots in legislation passed in 2018 that threatened to imprison anyone who suggests that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Netanyahu convinced Morawiecki, to change the law from charging offenders with criminal prosecution to facing a civil lawsuit.

“The prime minister of the Jewish state sells out the memory of the Holocaust for a dubious alliance with an anti-Semitic leader,” Tamar Zandberg, leader of Israel’s opposition Meretz party, was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.

Netanyahu appears to have suffered two blows ahead of the elections: he failed to host a summit that would have showcased his diplomatic talents and opened himself to being presented as soft on anti-Semitism in Europe.