Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that he intended to counterbalance the European Union's "unfriendly approach to Israel" through direct contact with European leaders, as he began a three-day trip to Lithuania, where he is set to meet leaders of the Baltic nations.
The prime minister has been working to obtain a fairer approach to Israel through contacts with blocs within the European Union, eastern European countries, and now with the Baltic nations, he said before boarding his plane.
"I have been invited to the Baltic countries' summit," Netanyahu said. "This is the first time that an Israeli prime minister will be visiting Lithuania, invited for this summit. This reflects Israel's increasing standing in the world.
"Of course, we are interested in closer economic and diplomatic ties with these countries, as they are interested with us," Netanyahu continued. "I am also interested in balancing the not always friendly attitude of the European Union towards Israel so that we receive fairer and more genuine treatment. I am doing this through contacts with blocs of countries within the European Union, Eastern European countries, [and] now with the Baltic countries, as well, of course with other countries.
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"Beyond that, the visit to Lithuania reminds us, of course, of the splendid Jewish community that existed there, the huge heights that it achieved and the depths of the tragedy of the Holocaust," said the prime minister. "It also has a personal aspect. My late father and mother's family came from Lithuania at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century. I will also touch on that on this visit."
On the trip, Netanyahu will meet with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait, Latvian Prime Minister Mris Kučinskis and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in Vilnius. Netanyahu is also expected to visit a synagogue in the city, which has an extensive Jewish history, as well as a monument commemorating the massacre of Jews in Ponary (Paneriai) during the Holocaust.
This visit is in line with Netanyahu's recent attempts to gain support for his government's political agenda in the EU and the UN, such as moving foreign embassies to Jerusalem, and to challenge the EU consensus on the Palestinian and Iranian issues.
Similarly, the prime minister has been courting the Central European Forum (the Visegrád Forum). In recent years, Israel has placed special emphasis on participating in such sub-regional forums and similar contacts are taking place with the leaders of the Balkan countries in Croatia.
Israel's relations with Lithuania and Latvia have been warming up in recent years. Estonia is considered to be more distant in its views and tends to take a neutral stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was especially obvious during its tenure as the rotating president of the EU.
Lithuania, on the other hand, was behind Netanyahu's invitation to visit the European Union headquarters in Brussels last December. It was the Lithuanian Foreign Minister who organized the visit, as part of an informal breakfast with the European foreign ministers, held before their monthly meeting. The move was seen as a counter-protocol snatch and provoked outrage at the office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Unlike the major European countries, the three Baltic states suffer from negative immigration to other EU countries and thus also from a drain brain, an issue Israel hopes will help strengthen its ties to these countries. In addition, the Baltic states' complex history with Russia has brought with it nativist perceptions; since the Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea, these states have been weighed under security concerns as well.
In 2016, NATO deployed special forces in the Baltic Sea area and stationed troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; Lithuania is also interested in cooperation with Israel in the field of internal security. Another issue that is expected to arise in the meetings is Estonia's expertise in digitization, as the country is considered the most digital in the European Union. The three leaders will also raise the issue of the Holocaust and the importance of education in preserving history.