The Israeli-Polish friendship may be dying


National Post, 21 February 2019

Reconciliation is only possible when the aggrieved decide to cease putting grievances — even legitimate ones — in the face of the other

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — Given that both Israel and Poland have reconciled with Germany after the Second World War, it is puzzling that it is so difficult for them to reconcile with each other.

What should have been a diplomatic triumph for Israel this week became a fiasco instead, largely because a new foreign minister ripped open old wounds about Polish conduct during the Holocaust.

The potential triumph was a planned summit. The Visegrád Group (V4) is an alliance of four central European countries — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — that have been meeting since 1991 to advance cultural, economic, political and military co-operation. All four members joined the EU in 2004, but represent a different foreign policy voice than that which dominates Brussels. In particular, the V4 takes a rather friendlier line toward Israel than the default settings of EU diplomats.

In recent years in particular, as more nationalist governments have come to power in Poland and Hungary, relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-of-centre government in Israel have become much stronger. So much so that the annual V4 summit was to take place in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Last week, Netanyahu was in Warsaw for an international meeting about Iran organized by the Trump administration. While there, Netanyahu was asked about a much criticized — even by Poland’s friends — “Holocaust Law” passed in 2017 that made it a crime to speak of “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi death camps” or to otherwise assign culpability to Poland for what Nazi Germany did during the years Poland was occupied in the Second World War.

This issue of Polish anti-Semitism in that period is enormously sensitive in Poland, where six million died during the war. Three million of those were Polish Jews. The other three million were not Jewish. The priority that international attention rightly gives to the Holocaust has long rankled some Polish nationalists, who consider that it underplays the hatred and brutality that Poles also suffered from Nazi Germany. The 2017 law was a clumsy attempt to reflect that, and instead inflamed international Jewish opinion, which accused Poland of trying to minimize the Holocaust in general, and the role of Poles in particular.

Netanyahu knew all of this background when he took a question last Thursday on the issue and replied saying that it was a well-known fact that “the Poles” collaborated with the Nazis. The Jerusalem Post exacerbated the situation by initially misreporting that Netanyahu had said “the Polish nation.” That was quickly corrected, but the reaction in Warsaw was fierce, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki cancelling his participation in this week’s V4 summit in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s office clarified that he was speaking of some Poles, not the entire nation. Damage was unnecessarily done by his carelessness, but the V4 summit would continue, though with a less senior Polish presence in the person of the foreign minister.

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