Netanyahu Meets Lithuanian President in Latest Overture to Former Soviet Bloc

Netanyahu and Lithuania's Saulius Skvernelis sign agreement to increase cooperation on cyberdefense

Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, left, shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Tuesday night with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, stressing joint interests between the two nations.

The meeting was a follow-up to the prime minister's visit to Lithuania in August. Economic Minister Eli Cohen and Lithuanian Minister of Economy and Innovation Virginijus Sinkevicius.

Netanyahu noted that Skvernelis was on his first visit to Israel as president but had previously visited in 2015 as interior minister, when he met with senior officials involved in national cybersecurity.

"Yesterday, our countries signed a declaration of intent to increase cooperation on cyberdefense," he said. "It is just one example of the growing cooperation between us."

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Netanyahu mentioned joint interests, including economics, trade, tourism and technology.

"I discovered during my visit that Lithuania is a world power in laser technology. I think that 10 percent of lasers in the world are produced in Lithuania," he said, noting that Israel is developing technologies that rely on lasers.

Acknowledging that Israel faces threats on the world stage, Netanyahu said he believed that cooperation between Israel and Lithuania serves a greater goal.

"I want to welcome you in a spirt of friendship and to promise you that there is great amity and a great desire to see our relations expand," the prime minister said. "There are many Israelis of Lithuanian extraction, and you are talking with one of them. It is a bridge from the past to the future."

When Netanyahu, who has Lithuanian roots, visited Vilnius last year, he praised Skvernelis for taking "great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust" and for fighting modern-day anti-Semitism.

"It's unforgivable. Netanyahu is giving them a green light," said Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "It's like praising the Ku Klux Klan for improving racial relations in the South."
"We have to say the truth. We owe it to the victims," he added.

Lithuania is among a slew of former communist nations swept up in a wave of World War II-era revisionism that seeks to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust while making heroes out of anti-Soviet nationalists involved in the mass killing of Jews. 

Lithuania, for instance, has been a leading force behind creating a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarianism, blurring the distinction between the crimes of the Nazis and the communists who fought them.
It also has pushed for legislation to prohibit the sale of books that "distort Lithuanian history" by citing the rampant, documented collaboration of the local population with Nazis. Most recently it has resisted calls to remove the various plaques commemorating anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, despite recent revelations by his own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, that he was a fierce anti-Semite who had a role in the murder of thousands of Jews.

Israel has been moving closer to a number of Central and Eastern European countries from the former Soviet bloc. Next month, Israel will host the next summit of the Visegrad nations, which include Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

Netanyahu's outreach in Eastern Europe is part of his larger strategy of forging alliances to counter the criticism Israel faces in the United Nations and other international forums over its treatment of the Palestinians.

During his three-day visit to Lithuania in August, Netanyahu said that he intended to counterbalance the European Union's "unfriendly approach to Israel" through direct contact with European leaders. 

"Of course, we are interested in closer economic and diplomatic ties with these countries, as they are interested with us," Netanyahu said at the time. "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."