A brief diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland has served as a sharp reminder of the power that a single word — even if that word is simply “the” — can sometimes carry in international relations.
Top Polish politicians were thrown into a frenzy Thursday after reports emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Warsaw for an international conference on the Middle East, had said that “the Poles cooperated with the Nazis” during the Holocaust.
Warsaw was apparently particularly riled by a story in The Jerusalem Post, which initially mischaracterized the Israeli leader’s quote as saying the Polish nation had cooperated with the Nazis.
Poland’s president said it was time to rethink an upcoming a high-level summit of Central European nations in Israel. Polish lawmakers called for an official parliamentary condemnation of Netanyahu’s words.
But the diplomatic mess was seemingly brought to an end hours later, after it became clear that Netanyahu had not actually said any of the above. What he had in fact said was that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis” — without the definite article.
Poles are particularly sensitive to insinuations that the nation as a whole collaborated with Germany during World War II, and have pointed to the deaths of millions of non-Jewish Poles at the hands of the Nazis. Be that as it may, most historians agree that Polish individuals’ collaboration against Jews was not a minor phenomenon.
Early 2018 saw a diplomatic crisis erupt between Jerusalem and Warsaw after the latter criminalized blaming Poles for Holocaust crimes. The dispute was resolved when Poland softened the law and Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart agreed on a joint declaration stressing the involvement of the Polish resistance in helping Jews. It was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland but Netanyahu faced criticism from historians in Israel, including at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, for agreeing to a statement that they said distorted history.
Last July, Netanyahu said he had taken note of the criticism and would address it at a later time, but he has not done so.
Questioned on the issue by The Times of Israel during a briefing with the traveling press Thursday, Netanyahu denied suggestions of going along with historical revisionism.
“Here I am saying Poles cooperated with the Nazis. I know the history and I don’t whitewash it. I bring it up,” he said, noting the matter of the law had come up in a meeting earlier on Thursday with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
He added that “a not insignificant number” of Poles had collaborated and said “I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”
Polish furor was apparently a response to reports that indicated Netanyahu had referred to the Polish nation as a whole. Israel’s Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari took pains Thursday night to clarify that this was not the case.
Azari told Polish leaders the Israeli premier “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’.”
Several reporters in the room reported Netanyahu had said “the.” But the Prime Minister’s Office spokeswoman Shir Cohen later played reporters a recording of the conversation in which it was clear the prime minister had indeed not used the definite article. (Journalists were not allowed to record the briefing, making it difficult to quickly verify what the prime minister had said.)
As for The Jerusalem Post’s error, Cohen told The Times of Israel: “The prime minister’s comments concerning Poland were misquoted by The Jerusalem Post, which quickly issued a correction clarifying that an error had been made in the editing of the article.”
Jerusalem’s explanation seemed to assuage Warsaw’s concerns, with the presidential office thanking Israel for the clarification and blaming “media manipulation” by The Jerusalem Post.
Nonetheless, Azari was summoned by Poland’s Foreign Ministry for a dressing down over the issue, The Times of Israel confirmed Friday. Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately comment on this development, which was first reported in Polish media.
On Wednesday in Warsaw, Netanyahu’s words also raised eyebrows in a different context. In a Hebrew-language video message recorded before he headed to the Warsaw conference, the prime minister hailed the fact that an Israeli leader was about to sit down with senior officials from “leading Arab countries” in order to “advance the common interest of combating Iran.”
An official translation of the statement translated the Hebrew phrase milhama b’Iran literally as “war with Iran.” An hour after the statement was published, Netanyahu’s staff hurriedly amended the statement, saying that Arab countries wee sitting down together with Israel in order to “advance the common interest of combating Iran.”
On the plane heading back to Israel on Friday, Netanyahu appeared to have learned his lesson from the controversies his words had caused throughout the trip. Asked by one reporter to clarify “Did the Poles collaborate in the Holocaust or not,” the prime minister referred her tersely to his spokeswoman.
“Shir will answer you,” he said.
Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.