Israeli Remarks on Poland's Role in Holocaust Cause Diplomatic Row

By Dimitri Simes | February 21, 2019 | 5:40pm EST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu.  (YouTube)

( -- During the past week, Israeli and Polish leaders engaged in a diplomatic spat over the Holocaust, which ended 74 years ago, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating, “Poles cooperated with the Nazis,” and with interim Israeli Prime Minister Yisrael Katz declaring, “Every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk.”

As a result of the diplomatic row, Warsaw withdrew from a planned summit of Central and Eastern European nations in Jerusalem.

The controversy began on Feb. 14 when a reporter from The Times of Israel asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a Polish law passed last year that criminalizes accusing Poland of having some level of culpability for the Holocaust. Critics describe the law as an attempt at historical revisionism.

The gate to the former Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz, Poland. (Getty Images)

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939 and divided the country in half in October 1939, based upon their agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the USSR and controlled all of Poland until late 1944 when the Soviets re-conquered the entire nation. Six Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor were located in Poland.

Netanyahu acknowledged to The Times of Israel that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis” during World War II, but added, “I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”

Following an uproar from Polish politicians, Israel officials rushed to clarify their prime minister’s remarks. The Israeli Embassy emphasized that Netanyahu “didn’t say the Polish nation carried out crimes against Jews, but only that no one has been sued under the Holocaust law for saying ‘Poles’ collaborated,” reported The Times of Israel.

Nevertheless, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki canceled his attendance for a planned meeting of the Visegrad Group -- a coalition consisting of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- in Jerusalem. He selected Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz to travel in his place. However, according to The Jerusalem Post, Warsaw was overall ready to move on from this incident.

However, Yisrael Katz, the recently appointed Israeli interim Foreign Minister, drew the ire of Polish officials on Sunday, Feb. 17, following comments he made in defense of Netanyahu’s statement.

Israel's interim Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz. (YouTube)

During an interview for Israel’s i24 News channel, Katz declared, “Many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and took part in the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust.” He also quoted former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who once said, “Every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk.”

The very next day Morawiecki denounced Katz’s remarks as “racist and unacceptable,” reported Reuters. As a further sign of protest, Poland completely pulled out of the Jerusalem summit. The leaders of the other Visegrad Group countries still met with Netanyahu separately on Tuesday. But without Poland’s participation, the summit was canceled.

Before this incident, Poland and Israel had a fairly amicable relationship. Netanyahu sought to cultivate ties with several European conservative governments in the hopes that they would eventually develop into a pro-Israel bloc within the European Union, which opposes Israel’s settlements on the West Bank and supports the Iran Deal.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.  (Getty Images)

In this context, Warsaw seemed like a natural partner. When the Trump administration moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Poland was one of the few European Union members who did not vote to condemn the decision in the United Nations. Just last week, Poland hosted a U.S.-led Middle East conference aimed at containing Iran.

However, Poland’s Holocaust law sparked opposition within Israel to Netanyahu’s outreach to Warsaw. The Israeli prime minister faced criticism last summer from liberals and historians for not criticizing the legislation vigorously enough.

With no signs of the rift ending, some allies of both countries are making a push for reconciliation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban expressed hope that Israel and Poland “will talk directly with each other and improve the situation.” On Wednesday U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher publicly urged Katz to apologize for his comments.

Warsaw is insisting on a formal apology from the Israeli Foreign Minister as a precondition for normalizing relations. Marek Suski, Morawiecki’s chief of staff, warned that if Katz refuses to retract his statements, “relations will really take a frosty turn.”

During World War II and the occupation by the Nazis and then the Soviets, an estimated 6 million Poles were killed – 3 million Jews, 2 million ethnic Poles, and 1 million citizens of different ethnic backgrounds.

The Communist Soviet Union occupied half of Poland in 1939-41 and then all of Poland from 1945 to 1989.

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