Poland-Israel tensions rise over ‘Nazi link’ claims

Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments cause anger in Poland ahead of summit

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to build friendly relations with central European nations are being tested, on the eve of a Jerusalem summit aimed at showcasing the alliance, by disputes over Holocaust history.

Netanyahu has long been criticised by domestic opponents for seeking political alliances in central Europe while turning a blind eye to historical revisionism and antisemitism in the region. However, the Israeli leader was caught up in the dispute last week, when he said during a visit to Warsaw that Poles had collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Netanyahu is due to host a summit of the V4 group – Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – in Jerusalem on Monday. This is the first time the bloc has met outside the region since it was founded in 1991.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, wrote on Twitter that if reports of Netanyahu’s comments in Warsaw were accurate, the summit should be cancelled, and offered to host the meeting instead. On Friday, the two countries appeared to have patched up their dispute, blaming the media for misinterpreting Netanyahu’s comments. The prime minister’s office said he had spoken of collaboration by “Poles”, meaning individual Polish people, not “the Poles”.

But the clarification did not appear to go far enough: Duda called Netanyahu to say he would skip the meeting and send his foreign minister, Israeli media reported.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party in Israel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, tweeted that Netanyahu “should have told the Polish prime minister: Cancel the plane ticket now, don’t come here, because we don’t grovel over the memory of the Holocaust”.

Lapid had previously condemned the summit, saying its invitees included a prime minister who “publishes antisemitic content” and another who desecrates the memories of Holocaust victims. “It’s a loss for all national pride,” he said.

Poland believes it is often unfairly blamed for Holocaust collaboration, given that it was occupied by the Nazis and also suffered huge losses during the war. However, critics accuse the current nationalist government of whitewashing the instances of such collaboration as did take place.

Despite the historical issues, the voices of the V4 countries inside the EU have proved a useful counterweight for Israel against other European nations that take a more critical line towards the country on the Palestinian question. At a summit in Budapest in 2017, Netanyahu was caught on microphone complaining to central European leaders about the EU’s “crazy” policies on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and asking them to help influence EU policy.

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN and a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said this month that Israel was pressuring central European countries on antisemitism but was grateful for their support inside the EU to Israeli policies, including on the decision by Donald Trump to move the US embassy in the country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“There were a few elements in the EU who tried to pass a resolution condemning the US for doing so. Some of our allies from eastern Europe were very active and blocked this issue,” said Danon. He had recently returned from Warsaw where he said he delivered a message that Israel is grateful for the support, but “at the same time, we expect them to take strong action against antisemitism”.

Netanyahu’s warmest friendship in the region is with Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbàn. Both politicians are former clients of the late Jewish-American rightwing political strategist Arthur Finkelstein. “There are similarities in the political model: corrupt, authoritarian states that have a siege mentality,” said Péter Krekó, who runs the Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbàn, who has a warm friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, has been accused of antisemitism.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbàn, who has a warm friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, has been accused of antisemitism. Photograph: Szilárd Koszticsák/AP

Orbán has repeatedly denied allegations of antisemitism, but has praised Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian second world war leader who collaborated with Nazi Germany in the deportation of the country’s Jews, and Orbán’s campaign against the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros has often appeared to play on antisemitic tropes.

Last year in a campaign speech, he said: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Prior to parliamentary elections last year, Hungary was plastered with advertisements showing Soros as an evil, cackling puppet master. At the time, the campaign was harshly criticised by the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, who said it “not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear”. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle,” he said.

However, in an unusual move, Amrani was slapped down by the Israeli foreign ministry the next day, which, according to Israeli media, issued a clarification on the orders of Netanyahu. The ambassador’s statement was “in no way meant to delegitimise criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organisations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” according to the clarification.

Netanyahu has called Orbán “a true friend of Israel” and provided him with cover when accused of antisemitism. “When people make the claims he can use the ‘some of my best friends are the leader of the Jewish state’ defence,” said Krekó.

“It’s very sad and disturbing that the prime minister of the homeland of the Jewish people… is now whitewashing for antisemitic and racist governments,” said Tamar Zandberg, leader of Israel’s leftwing Meretz party. “It’s both wrong from the perspective of international policy, but also insulting for Holocaust survivors, and for their families, generations later.”

• The headline on this article was amended on 18 February 2019 to Poland-Israel from Warsaw-Jerusalem.


Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem and Shaun Walker in Budapest

The GuardianTramp

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