The bizarre exchange on Saturday between an Israeli journalist and the Polish prime minister at the Munich Security Conference, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s low-key response, raises the question: What do the nationalist leaders of Poland have to say before Israel finally makes it clear that it cannot have friendly relations with a government that engages in open Holocaust revisionism?
A quick recap. On Saturday, during a session with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Ronen Bergman recounted his mother’s experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. “If I told her story in Poland, I would be considered a criminal,” he concluded. Morawiecki replied by saying that there had been Polish perpetrators in the Holocaust “just as there were Jewish and Russian perpetrators, as well.”
What was Netanyahu’s response to the comparison between a small number of Jews, who under duress and fear of death collaborated with their Nazi murderers, and the masses of Polish citizens who willingly killed Jews, often even before the Germans arrived?
He called Morawiecki’s words “outrageous,” but then immediately downplayed it as “a problem here of an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people.” Later on, the two prime ministers spoke on the phone and, according to Netanyahu's official statement, he said that Israel “will not accept” such words and that teams from both countries would “soon” meet to discuss the issue.
Netanyahu didn’t even realize the irony in the fact that this was exactly what he had agreed upon with his Polish counterpart only last month, after the lower house of parliament in Warsaw voted in favor of the Holocaust revisionism bill. The teams did not even have time to hold more than one meeting before the Polish Senate and president passed it into law. What exactly are the teams supposed to talk about now? Perhaps about Morawiecki’s next visit to Jerusalem.
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As Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Noa Landau revealed last week, Netanyahu is eager to host a summit in Israel of the Visegrad Group nations, which includes Poland and Hungary. Along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the Visegrad Four are now Netanyahu’s best allies in the European Union and he expects them to veto any condemnation of the Israeli government’s settlement policy in Brussels on Israel’s behalf. For that he is willing to pay the price of Poland’s revisionism and Hungary’s latent anti-Semitism (which he doesn’t mind so much anyway, as it’s directed at Jewish financier George Soros, who Netanyahu himself has accused of being behind the campaign against his government’s program to deport African asylum seekers).
There’s nothing new here, of course. In just a few months, Netanyahu has defied the wishes of Jewish community leaders in both Hungary as well as Austria. He refused to denounce the anti-Semitic campaign against Soros launched by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government and endorsed Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s new coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots – albeit he made the minor gesture of barring direct contact with the party's ministers. And moreover, he totally dismissed the concerns of American Jews when U.S. President Donald Trump turned a blind eye toward white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the United States.
Which leads us back to the question: What do the Poles have to say for Netanyahu to give the order for the slightest diplomatic express of disapproval – the recalling of Israel's envoy to Poland, Anna Azari, from Warsaw for consultations?
The Foreign Ministry’s professional diplomats are beside themselves. In a tiny sign of protest on Monday, someone in Jerusalem posted a link on the ministry’s Facebook page to an interview of Polish historian Jan Grabowski with Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet, in which Grabowski claimed that more than 200,000 Jews were killed, directly or indirectly, by Poles during the Holocaust.
But for now Netanyahu’s policy of coddling anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism, as long as it comes from his diplomatic allies, holds.
There may be one tiny silver lining in the cloud. Netanyahu could have reacted more forcefully against the Polish prime minister’s remarks, as it would have been in his political interest to do so. A strong condemnation would have been popular with the Israeli public, and would have probably lessened to a degree the publicity of the police investigations against him. One could take comfort in the fact that he seems, for now at least, to be prioritizing Israel’s foreign policy interests as he sees them over his domestic PR concerns. Small mercies.