Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, met last week with a visiting delegation from an extremist right-wing party in Belgium that the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community are boycotting.
Heading the delegation from Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) was Filip Dewinter, a prominent member of the racist party with anti-Semitic elements, whose views have earned him the sobriquet “Belgium’s Jean-Marie Le Pen,” according to Israeli Foreign Ministry sources.
Akunis bragged about the meeting on his Facebook page, writing in a post accompanied by a photograph that he would “continue to be a spokesperson for Israel. Without apologizing or squirming.”
The meeting was organized by the head of the Samaria Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, and deputy head Yossi Dagan. Mesika, a Likud activist from the party’s “national camp,” has in the past few years signed up many settlers as Likud members, in a bid to move the party further to the right. Many Likud Knesset members say privately that if they don’t cooperate with Mesika they risk being left out of the party primaries.
Mesika and Dagan “marketed” the Flemish Interest members to Israeli politicians and mainstream media outlets as a delegation from the Belgian parliament that supports the West Bank settlements and is opposed to boycotting Israel. In fact, most of the visitors sit in the Flemish Parliament, and their ostensible support for Israel stems mainly from the desire to obtain legitimacy in the eyes of their country’s Jewish community.
In 2010, Mesika and Dagan brought to Israel the leader of Austria’s extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, the successor to Jorg Haider.
Flemish Interest is a separatist party that supports independence from Belgium for Flanders. Its platform warns against the “Islamization of Europe,” calls for restrictions on immigration and demands adoption of Flemish identity and culture as a condition for residence. It also calls for granting amnesty to Flemish Nazi collaborators as well as the recision of laws against racism and Holocaust denial, on the grounds of freedom of expression. Senior party figures have a long record of identifying with Nazi Germany and of denying the Holocaust.
A senior official from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem noted that the Israeli Embassy in Brussels and Belgium’s Jewish community have placed a “cordon sanitaire” around Flemish Interest, adding that the majority of Belgian political parties take a similar stance and that its pariah status is the reason it has never been part of the national government.
“It’s a nationalist-populist party with racist and anti-Semitic elements characteristic of the European extreme right,” the official said. "The party promotes xenophobia and legitimizes the cooperation of Flemish nationalists with Nazi Germany. It is a disgraceful insult to the Jewish communities in Belgium and across the entire EU, that are fighting xenophobia and neo-fascist nationalism. The fact that this party is desperately seeking a kosher stamp from Jews does not mean we can blindly accept their statements, that pretend to be pro-Israel. Whoever recklessly, criminally opens the door to extremist nationalists will be unable to escape responsibility when rising European xenophobia harms them or those close to them."
Akunis’s media consultant, Shai Haik, said in a response that Akunis agreed to Mesika’s request that he meet with the delegation and explain Israel’s position. “Expressions by the parliament members as implied in the article were not brought to the deputy minister’s attention before the meeting and were not raised during it. [Akunis] condemns harshly all expressions of racism and support for fascist movements,” Haik said.
In a separate statement, the Samaria Regional Council said Flemish Interest is accused falsely of being anti-Semitic, adding that it is very friendly toward Israel and the Jewish community. The statement accused leftist elements in Israel of trying to denigrate the party, noted that Mesika’s family were Holocaust survivors and that two of his brothers were murdered in Nazi death camps, and expressed regret for the participation of Haaretz in the attempt to besmirch the reputation of its political rivals. The council said it would consider taking action against this newspaper for violating anti-libel laws.