Israel hosts east European leaders after summit scrapped

February 19, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted his Czech, Slovakian and Hungarian counterparts Tuesday in a series of sit-downs that replaced a high-profile summit in Jerusalem that was cancelled over a rift with Poland.

The first gathering outside Europe of the Visegrad group was supposed to be a crowning achievement for Netanyahu in his outreach to central and eastern Europe to counter the traditional criticism Israel faces in international forums. But it dramatically unraveled over a bitter exchange between Poland and Israel over how to characterize Polish behavior toward its Jewish community during and after World War II.

In place of the summit, Netanyahu held back-to-back meetings with Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban before hosting all three for lunch at his official residence.

But hovering over it all was the absence of Poland, the fourth member of the group. The diplomatic crisis between the typically close allies began last week when Netanyahu, pressed by reporters accompanying his visit to Warsaw, concurred that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis.” The comments infuriated his Polish hosts, who reject suggestions that their country collaborated with the Nazis and have passed a law that prohibits linking the Polish nation to the genocide of 6 million Jews.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced Sunday that he was pulling out of the summit and that his foreign minister would go instead. He then canceled Polish participation altogether the following day after Israel’s acting foreign minister, Israel Katz, referenced a quote from the late former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who said that Poles “suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”

Morawiecki denounced the comments as “racist” and “absolutely unacceptable.” Poland’s nationalist government has been quick to denounce anyone accused of linking the country to the well-documented history of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews that took place there during and after the wartime German occupation. Israeli officials see their controversial legislation as an attempt to suppress such discussion, and Netanyahu has faced criticism from historians in Israel for not opposing the law, which critics say distorts history.

It’s a sensitive subject for Poland, which for centuries was a vibrant center of Jewish life. Poland was the first country occupied by Adolf Hitler’s regime and never had a collaborationist government. Members of Poland’s resistance and government-in-exile struggled to warn the world about the mass killing of Jews, and thousands of Poles risked their lives to help Jews.

However, Holocaust researchers have also collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis, or Polish blackmailers who preyed on the Jews for financial gain and stole their property.

Netanyahu initially sought to clarify that he “spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland.” But then his acting foreign minister, on his first day on the job, took to the airwaves and ratcheted up the rhetoric.

Netanyahu is seeking re-election in April, and it is possible both he and Katz are trying to gain favor with their nationalist base by standing up to Poland. Likewise, Poland’s leaders are preparing for both national and European elections this year. The saga has unleashed a new wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Poland, where the local Jewish leadership has called on all sides to tone it down.

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