Analysis

With Poland, Netanyahu Discovers the Limits of Playing With History

Poland, Hungary and Lithuania have all been laundered by the Prime Minister of History. But what Netanyahu has done goes much further than realpolitik and is ultimately unsustainable

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019.
Michael Sohn,AP

UPDATE: Poland pulls out of Jerusalem summit after 'racist' Israeli remarks

Sometimes it is hard to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu grew up in the home of a historian, even one as bleak and uncompromising in his damning assessments as Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. In recent years, the prime minister’s view of contemporary Jewish history has lost all nuance. It has a few basic rules.

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Those he sees as Israel’s enemies were either responsible for the original Holocaust or are planning a new one. By that light, the father of the Palestinian national movement, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, wasn’t just a fan of Adolf Hitler – it was actually him, not the Germans, who suggested the Final Solution. And Israel’s regional confrontation with Iran is never less than “1938.” By extension, any criticism from governments or international organizations of Netanyahu’s policies on Iran or the Palestinians is tantamount to collaboration with the Nazis.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's turbulent trip in Warsaw ■ Poland's 'Holocaust Law': The wound is still open | Editorial 

The flip side is that 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.

Netanyahu has the unique distinction of being called out, twice, by Yad Vashem historians for his distortions of the Holocaust. Israel is still in a better place than Poland. The historians of Yad Vashem – unlike the state-run Auschwitz museum, which is in charge of enforcing the narrative approved by the Polish government – are still independent to criticize the prime minister. Netanyahu isn’t trying to change that. At least not yet.

>>Auschwitz Is Rewriting Holocaust History, One Tweet at a Time

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 favor, 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.

Netanyahu shakes hands with Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019.
\ AGENCJA GAZETA/ REUTERS

When David Ben-Gurion engaged with the West German government in the 1950s, it was realpolitik. The young Israel, absorbing over a million refugees and building an army, on the brink of bankruptcy, needed Germany’s financial assistance. For many Jews, any shape of relationship with Germany so soon after the Holocaust was anathema. Ben-Gurion made the difficult decision. But in giving the Germans a chance to pay reparations, he wasn’t changing the narrative of the Holocaust.

What Netanyahu has done goes much further and is ultimately unsustainable. Political expediency is a flexible thing. You can say different things at different times to different audiences. History is much more difficult to change at a politician’s convenience.

Ironically, Netanyahu was himself recognizing this last Thursday, when in answer to a question by Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Noa Landau, about the law passed by the Polish government allowing lawsuits against those “defaming” the record of Polish citizens during the Holocaust, he said: “The Poles collaborated with the Nazis, and I don’t know anyone who was ever sued for such a statement.”

It’s just realpolitik, Netanyahu was saying. We politicians play fast and loose with the historical facts, pass laws and make speeches, but it doesn’t really change history. Don’t take us politicians too seriously, he was implying as he tried to dismiss the concerns. Except that some politicians do take history very seriously. Poland’s politicians, for example, who are doing what Netanyahu has yet to try and actually criminalize the recounting of history.

It didn’t matter how hard Netanyahu and his office tried later to explain to the Poles that he didn’t actually mean THE Poles, ALL THE Poles or the Polish nation in any sense. Not only had he defamed “the Poles,” he had inadvertently admitted that revisionist laws are useless anyway. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki decided at the last moment not to come to the Visegrad Group’s summit in Jerusalem on Monday, downgrading Poland’s representation to foreign minister level. (Poland has since pulled out of the summit, following comments made by interim Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz.)

The relationship Netanyahu has built with two of the Visegrad leaders, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Morawiecki, is based on maintaining the nationalist right-wing politicians’ cherished historical narratives. In one chance remark, Netanyahu showed how pointless these attempts are. No wonder Morawiecki is staying home.