Israel is in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Poland, one of its best friends in Europe. The regrettable events that led to a breach in the burgeoning alliance, based on a shared perception of interests, owe mainly to the inexperience of Israel’s Acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz.
On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s Defense Minister, announced that he was appointing Katz to serve as acting foreign minister. Netanyahu had held the portfolio until then. He appointed Katz in response to a petition to the Supreme Court asking Israel’s activist justices to order Netanyahu to give at least one of the senior ministries to someone else, in light of their critical importance.
At the height of an election season, appointing Katz, a heavyweight in Netanyahu’s Likud Party made sense. Katz, the long serving transportation minister, placed second in the Likud’s party primaries, and promoting him was a sure win among the party faithful.
Unfortunately, Katz apparently didn’t understand that diplomacy requires different skills than highway maintenance.
Katz walked into his new job just as the latest brushfire with Poland was being extinguished.
Last February, the Polish parliament passed a law making it a crime to attribute responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish people. The maximum penalty for breaking the law was three years in prison. Given the role that many Poles played in the annihilation of European Jews on Polish soil during the Holocaust, the Polish law stirred an uproar in Israel and among Jewish communities worldwide. The outcry threatened to undermine Israeli-Polish bilateral ties, which have been expanding rapidly over the past decade.
It took several months of careful diplomacy and good will on the part of both governments to defuse the crisis. In June, the Polish parliament amended the law to cancel the possibility of imprisonment for lawbreakers. Both sides declared victory, and the problem appeared to be solved.
Last week’s anti-Iran conference in Warsaw, jointly led by the Polish and U.S. governments and attended by Netanyahu, highlighted the restoration of ties between the two countries, and their shared interest in working with the U.S. to neutralize the strategic threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its regional and worldwide aggression.
But the visit also pointed to the delicacy of relations between a Polish government that has made absolving Poland of responsibility for the Holocaust, and the State of Israel, which is committed to preserving and safeguarding the historical record regarding the Holocaust.
During his visit in Warsaw, Netanyahu told a reporter from the Times of Israel, “Poles cooperated with the Nazis.”
The Jerusalem Post misquoted Netanyahu and reported he said that “The Polish nation cooperated with the Nazis.”
A diplomatic crisis ensued.
Jerusalem was scheduled to hold a summit of the prime ministers of the Visegard Group – the four-member EU bloc of central-eastern European nations comprised of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — in Jerusalem on Tuesday. From the Visegard group’s perspective, the purpose of the meeting was to show the EU leadership in Brussels that the Eastern European leaders are capable of carrying out an independent foreign policy.
From Israel’s perspective, the purpose of the summit was to show Brussels that the EU leadership is not the only game in town. Israel can and does develop close ties with EU member states, even as Brussels’ overall position on Israel grows more and more hostile.
Following a clarification of Netanyahu’s remarks, the Poles decided that they would still attend the summit. But rather than have Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attend, Morawiecki announced that Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz would represent him at the conference with the prime ministers of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
And then Katz entered the Foreign Ministry.
Less than 12 hours after his promotion, Katz gave a television interview Sunday evening to the Israeli media. In the course of his conversation with I-24-Israel Hayom, he was asked about the Polish diplomatic rift, and he proceeded to widen it. Rather than emphasize Israel’s close bilateral ties with Poland, or note the importance of Poland’s hosting of Israel and Arab nations together at the the Middle East Security Summit, Katz took an axe to Israel-Polish ties.
“I am the child of Holocaust survivors,” he said, “and like every Israeli and Jew I will not compromise over the memory of the Holocaust.”
He continued, “We will neither forgive nor forget, and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. How did [late prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir put it – they killed his father – ‘the Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk.’
“No one will tell us how to express our positions and opinions, and how to respect the memory of the fallen. These positions are very clear, and no one among us will compromise on them.”
The Poles responded with shock, and fury. By Monday, Poland pulled out of the Visegard conference in Jerusalem, formally cancelling it. While the other prime ministers arrived in Jerusalem as scheduled, in the absence of Poland, they didn’t convene as the Visegard group, but as individual heads of government.
In Israel, responses were mixed. Some voices supported Katz, saying it is time to set the record straight and stop catering to the Polish government’s neurotic relationship with the Holocaust. Others attacked Katz as a diplomatic pyromaniac.
While both criticisms had truth to them, they ignored the fundamentals of foreign policymaking.
Diplomacy is about working with foreign governments to achieve common goals. Sometimes those governments are friends that share your nation’s values and perceptions of right and wrong. And sometimes they aren’t.
For instance, if all that was informing U.S. leaders after September 11 was a thirst for vengeance, then the Bush administration would have gone to war against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, since 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and the other four were Egyptians.
The U.S. chose not to cut off its ties with its closest allies and partners in the Arab world — but not because it didn’t recognize their responsibility for spawning and enabling the growth of the jihadist ideology that informed the actions of their nationals. The U.S. chose to remain a close ally of the Saudis and Egyptians because doing so served its strategic interests — whether in preserving the flow of oil in the world market, or ensuring the safe passage of maritime traffic across the Suez Canal.
Was that move wrong? Of course not.
If Israel were to base its foreign policy on countries’ past record of abuse of Jews during the Holocaust — and, more generally, throughout Europe’s 2,000 years of persecution of Jews — then the only European states it would be capable of having diplomatic relations with are Bulgaria and Denmark.
The point isn’t whether or not a state has a past of persecution of Jews generally. All states in Europe have such a past.
The point is that today, some European states are becoming more antisemitic and more hostile to Israel. And some European states are becoming less antisemitic and friendlier to Israel.
Poland, like the other Visegard members, is in the latter category. France, Germany, Belgium, and other Western European states are in the former category. Israel is best served by cultivating close ties to the European states that want close ties with it, and keeping its distance from those who want close ties with Iran and the Palestinians.
The U.S. is now calling for Israel to apologize to Poland for Katz’s statement. And Washington is right.
Hopefully, someday, Poland will reconcile itself with the historical truth of its people’s dubious and decidedly mixed record of behavior towards the Jews during the Holocaust. And Israel cannot accept revision of the historic record.
But Israel also has important interests in the world. Those interests are best advanced by working with like-minded countries. And in issues that matter, along a wide spectrum of areas, Poland is a like-minded country. Israel should treat it accordingly.
Caroline Glick is a world-renowned journalist and commentator on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East. She is running for Israel’s Knesset as a member of the Yamin Hahadash (New Right) party in Israel’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 9. Read more at www.CarolineGlick.com.