After Refusing On-camera Statement, Netanyahu Clarifies Remark on Poland Holocaust Law

Prime Minister's bureau says he was referring to 'Poles and not the Polish people' after Warsaw objects to comment about cooperation with Nazis

Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019
\ Kacper Pempel/ REUTERS

Following a request from the Polish government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau released a short English-language statement on Saturday explaining that when answering a question in a press briefing about Polish involvement in the Holocaust, he "spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland."

The diplomatic incident surrounding Netanyahu's initial comment began on Thursday, when the prime minister held a briefing for Israeli journalists accompanying him on his visit to Warsaw for a conference on the Middle East.

During the briefing, Netanyahu was asked by Haaretz what he thought about the Polish law that permits lawsuits against those who attribute complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust to the Polish people.

Netanyahu responded that Poles did in fact cooperate with the Nazis during the Holocaust and that he was unaware of anyone ever being sued for making this statement.

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Netanyahu's comments were initially quoted on the Jerusalem Post's website as having said that "the Polish nation" cooperated with the Nazis, reigniting diplomatic tensions. Polish Prime Minister Mateurz Morawiecki reacted on Twitter, writing that Poland never cooperated with Germany during World War II and that his country had been victimized by Nazi occupation.

He also threatened that if the comment was not clarified, he would not attend the summit meeting of the Visegrad nations – Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – scheduled to take place in Israel next week. Polish President Andrzej Duda also said Israel would not be a good site for the summit if Netanyahu's comment had been accurately reported.

On Friday morning, the head of Duda's bureau wrote on Twitter that it had received an official explanation from Israel and blamed malicious media manipulation for the incident.

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz responded on Twitter: "Did we @Jerusalem_Post cause the diplomatic crisis between Poland and Israel? We don't think so. But if so, the Polish past during the Holocaust is an important issue to clarify."

But the crisis was not yet over, with Warsaw continuing to demand that Netanyahu clarify his position and summoning the Israeli ambassador in Poland for clarification. Netanyahu nevertheless refused to clarify the remark in person. Asked on his flight back to Israel to go on camera to clarify his exact meaning and whether Poles collaborated in the Holocaust, he said his spokeswoman would provide an answer. His spokeswoman then issued a statement saying Netanyahu had been misquoted.

Yesh Atid Chairman reacted to the incident on Twitter, writing that "the Israeli government must tell the Polish prime minister that he can already give up his plane ticket and look for another destination. There can be no negotiation over the Holocaust. This was true before Netanyahu's previous obsequiousness and it's true now."

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg also weighed in on Netanyahu's clarification, saying: "The prime minister of the Jews' state is selling out the memory of the Holocaust for the sake of a dubious alliance with an anti-Semitic leader. It's spitting in the face of more than three million Jews who were murdered on Polish soil and cooperating with historical revisionism in the name of a short-term, self-interested political alliance."

The Polish government has been working in recent years to play down the historical narrative of Poles collaborating with Nazis during the Holocaust and has sought to emphasize that the Polish nation was victimized by the Germans. As part of this effort, it has fought against anyone using terms like "Polish extermination camps" and demanded that it be specified that these camps were run by Germans on Polish soil. The Polish government maintains that any Polish cooperation was isolated, as in other countries. On this issue, Prime Minister Morawiecki has said there had been Polish collaborators "just as there were Jewish and Russian perpetrators, as well."

In June, Morawiecki announced that he intended to back off from making it a criminal offense to attribute responsibility for the Holocaust to the Polish people following discussions with Israel. He added that he hoped changes in the legislation would lead to an improvement in relations with Jerusalem. However, the possibility of civil proceedings against someone making such a statement remains. A joint statement by Morawiecki and Netnayhau on the matter caused further controversy when the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center contradicted it, saying the statement included "grave errors and deceptions" and "effectively supports" the Polish narrative claiming that Poles worked tirelessly to save Jews during the Holocaust.