The Fifth World Holocaust Forum will convene at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. According to Yad Vashem and the World Holocaust Forum, 45 heads of state will travel to Jerusalem for the “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism” conference as President Reuven Rivlin’s guests.
But unless something changes at the last moment, the event won’t be a diplomatic triumph but will instead mark the end of the golden era of Israeli diplomacy.
This isn’t the fault of the impressive lot of guests but with who won’t be at the event — Polish President Andrzej Duda. Duda’s absence doesn’t owe to lack of interest; he made no effort to hide how it important he felt it would be to attend. Indeed, as Israel Hayom reported, Duda was so eager to come that he was willing to leave the World Economic Forum early to fly to Jerusalem for the conference.
And it isn’t that Netanyahu didn’t want him to come. Netanyahu wants very much for Duda to come, because Duda’s participation would mark the end of the two-year crisis in Polish-Israeli ties. The crisis was precipitated in January 2018 with the Polish parliament’s passage of a law that criminalized criticism of Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Lawbreakers were subject to up to three years’ imprisonment.
The law was widely reviled as a bid to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. Its passage provoked a massive outcry in the Jewish world. Israel joined the protests. A crisis in Polish-Israel relations ensued. It took months of delicate and complicated diplomacy led by Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to figure out a way out of the dispute. In June 2018 the Polish parliament amended the law and revoked the possibility of imprisonment for transgressors.
The crisis appeared to be resolved. Israel and Poland resumed their close bilateral relations, much to both sides’ satisfaction and benefit.
Poland is the most powerful member of the European Union’s Visegrad Group, which includes four formerly communist central European states — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The governments of the Visegrad member nations are among Israel’s steadiest allies in the European Union.
Led by Poland, the four governments successfully torpedoed several anti-Israel decisions in Brussels. For instance, in May 2018, the Visegrad bloc rejected a draft resolution condemning the United States for opening its embassy in Jerusalem. In February 2019, together with the United States, Poland hosted Netanyahu and Arab leaders at an international security conference in Warsaw that focused on the threat Iran poses to international security.
A week after the conference in Warsaw, the Visegrad bloc was scheduled to convene in Jerusalem — another diplomatic triumph. But days before that summit was set to begin, following a Supreme Court decision prohibiting Netanyahu from continuing to serve as foreign minister, Netanyahu appointed Israel Katz to serve in his stead. On Katz’s first day in his new job, the veteran transportation minister with little diplomatic experience managed to undo all of Netanyahu’s and Morawiecki’s painstaking efforts to resolve the crisis. In one fell swoop, Katz reinstated and deepened it.
In a media interview, Katz quoted late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who said that Poles drink anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk. The Polish government, predictably, was apoplectic. Morawiecki swiftly canceled Poland’s participation at the Jerusalem summit.
Last March, Hungary opened a diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem. Members of the Visegrad bloc have said privately that they are willing to open embassies in Jerusalem. They have also expressed willingness to call for the European Union to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran. But no Visegrad bloc members are willing to take such major steps without Poland. And Poland won’t get in a fight with the Germans, the French and the E.U. bureaucracy in Brussels for an Israel that it perceives as insulting its national honor.
Following the U.S. targeting of Iran’s terror master Qassem Soleimani three weeks ago, and Iran’s subsequent announcement that it is no longer abiding by the limitations on its nuclear activities dictated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), breaking the E.U.’s unanimity on the JCPOA has become a matter of strategic urgency for Israel.
If Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were to announce they support reinstating the United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran that were suspended with the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015 through the deal’s so-called “snapback” clause, their announcement at this juncture could have profound implications.
Consider the predicament of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As Johnson seeks to conclude a Brexit agreement with Brussels, he doubtlessly feels compelled to continue to align his Iran policy with the E.U.’s pro-Iran policy. But if the Visegrad bloc were to disavow the JCPOA, the pressure would mount on Johnson to align British policy with U.S. policy.
Along these lines, Johnson would feel more compelled to act in accordance with the JCPOA and introduce a resolution at the Security Council to restore the U.N. sanctions on Iran. If those sanctions are “snapped back” (which Iran’s announcement that it is abandoning the JCPOA’s nuclear limitations should have precipitated automatically), they will strengthen the current dynamic of regime instability, embolden the protesters in the street in Iran and discourage commanders in Iran’s armed forces or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from harming them.
This brings us back to Duda and his non-attendance at the Holocaust conference in Jerusalem thhis week.
For four months, Duda asked to be permitted to speak at the conference. Last month those requests turned urgent.
On Dec. 19, in a lecture in Saint Petersburg, Putin harshly attacked pre-war Poland. He accused the Poles of supporting the Nazis on the eve of the war and minimized the significance of the Soviet Union’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during the same period. Putin condemned Polish anti-Semitism in the 1930s, but ignored Soviet anti-Semitism. He failed to mention the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany that carved up Poland between the two powers and set the conditions for Germany’s invasion of Poland and the initiation of the genocide of European Jewry. Israel and the United States joined Poland in condemning Putin’s remarks.
It was important for Duda to speak at the conference in Jerusalem in order to respond to Putin’s accusations. It was doubly critical for the Poles that Duda be afforded the right to speak because they rightly believe it likely that Putin will use his speech at Yad Vashem to double down on his historical revisionism.
All of Poland’s requests to the conference’s organizers to permit Duda to speak were rejected. Arguing that only the Germans and the Allied powers were asked to speak, the organizers failed to take into consideration the damage their refusal would cause to Israel’s bilateral relations with Poland or to Israel’s wider strategic interests.
Earlier this week, Israel Hayom reported that at a meeting Duda held with representatives of Polish Jewish groups, Shevach Weiss, the former Israeli ambassador to Poland, former Knesset speaker and chairman of Yad Vashem, blamed the decision to deny Duda’s requests on Moshe Kantor. Kantor is a Russian Jewish businessman and philanthropist and president of the European Jewish Congress. Kantor is also the founder and president of the World Holocaust Foundation.
“The conference was organized by Mr. Kantor and he organized it like a merchant. But you can’t trade in history. You can’t do that,” said Weiss.
Senior officials in Washington involved in the dispute take issue with Weiss’s claim. It’s possible, they say, that Kantor lobbied for Duda to be barred from speaking, But the decision wasn’t Kantor’s to make. President Rivlin, they say, chose to deny Duda’s requests.
Rivlin, they charge, denied Duda’s requests not only against Netanyahu’s wishes but despite the Trump administration’s requests that he be permitted to speak. The administration views both Israel and Poland as key allies and is keen to see an improvement in their bilateral relations. They are hopeful that Rivlin will have a change of heart and belatedly approve Duda’s request.
For the past decade, Netanyahu conducted Israel’s foreign relations almost entirely on his own. Netanyahu knew not to base his actions on populist rallying cries or emotions. Instead, Netanyahu focused on identifying and cultivating common interests with other countries. Owing to his actions, Israel’s diplomatic position is stronger today than it has ever been. Key global powers and countries worldwide view Israel as a partner and ally because of Netanyahu’s respect for their interests and willingness to work with them. Israel, for its part, has only benefited from Netanyahu’s skillful stewardship of its foreign affairs.
Today, there are many nations that wish to work with Israel to advance common goals. Israel’s closest ally — America — believes it has an interest in improved Israeli-Polish relations. But now that Netanyahu is no longer alone in the ring, we are beginning to see what the post-Netanyahu future holds in store for us. Unless Rivlin changes his mind, this week’s conference will not be a triumph of Israeli diplomacy. It will be a missed opportunity of strategic proportions.