After meeting Netanyahu, Lithuanian leader proposes closer EU ties

Saulius Skvernelis calls for cooperation on counter-terrorism, and more direct dialogue to ‘better understand’ Israeli positions

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, on August 23, 2018. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, on August 23, 2018. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

Lithuania’s prime minister on Friday proposed talks between the EU and Israeli interior ministers focused on terrorism, amid tensions over Iran and the Palestinian conflict.

“Lithuania will initiate discussion in EU home affairs council with the Israeli public security minister over terrorism threats and other security issues,” Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis told AFP in an interview.

Skvernelis said he discussed the idea with Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu who is in Vilnius for a four-day visit to boost bilateral ties and build support for Israel’s interests in the Middle East.

Officials said no date was set yet and the format would depend on reaction from Brussels and Western European capitals which are more critical towards Israel.

Skvernelis said in an interview with the Baltic News Service that after a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu, “I believe Lithuania really has a better understanding of Israel and that understanding could be spread among other EU countries. ”

“We need to better listen, hear them out and understand their position. We definitely lack a direct dialogue,” he said.

“But we have to admit that today Israel is not only waging war and defending its independence, the lives of its people, but is also fighting in a wider context, if we speak about terrorism and potential expansion of IS fighters to Europe,” Skvernelis said.

Lithuania, one of Israel’s stronger allies in the European Union, was behind Netanyahu’s invitation to meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels last December, irking some Brussels officials.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, August 23, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Skvernelis told AFP his country backs the EU position on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, the status of Jerusalem and the Iran nuclear deal, but wants more direct dialogue between the EU and the Jewish state.

“We want the discussion to happen as it would help to seek compromise on complicated international issues,” Skvernelis said.

On Thursday dozens of pro-Palestinian activists waved Palestinian flags and chanted that Netanyahu was “not welcome,” while railing against Lithuania’s warm ties with Israel, outside government buildings in the capital Vilnius, where he held talks with Skvernelis.

Netanyahu is meeting Friday with three Baltic prime ministers in his quest to counterbalance European criticism of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories and to increase pressure on Iran.

Netanyahu will hold talks with Skvernelis, Estonia’s Juri Ratas and Maris Kucinskis of Latvia. He started the day by meeting Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (L) as they meet in Vilnus on August 24, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Petras Malukas)

On Thursday Netanyahu praised Lithuania for its efforts at Holocaust remembrance. He thanked Skvernelis for being a rare voice in support of Israel within the EU and for his efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

Many Israelis have origins in Lithuania, including Netanyahu’s grandmother, who was born in the northern town of Seduva. The prime minister will meet with members of the Jewish community and visit a memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims there.

Over 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jews died during the 1941-1944 German occupation at the hands of Nazis and local collaborators.

Critics say the country has never fully recognized crimes by Lithuanians during the Holocaust and has continued to honor nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis. It has also prosecuted Jews who fought with partisan forces against the Nazis, including former Yad Vashem chairman Yitzhak Arad.

In 2011, Yad Vashem uninvited Lithuanian officials from a memorial ceremony in protest of the prosecutions.

Netanyahu should “express Israel’s unequivocal opposition to their ongoing efforts to rewrite the narrative of the Holocaust and promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes,” Simon Wiesenthal Center Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff wrote in an op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post Thursday.

Earlier this month, leaders of Lithuania’s Jewish community asked authorities in Vilnius to remove a plaque honoring anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, who killed Jews according to his granddaughter.

Netanyahu has been accused by critics of overlooking anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion in Eastern European countries in order to curry favor and build a pro-Israel bloc within the European Union.

On Thursday, Netanyahu praised Skvernelis for the “strong position you’ve taken in forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency.”

“Israel is often mistreated by the EU in Brussels, there are many distortions that are leveled at us, and it is refreshing to see that you take a stand of clarity, of truth and of courage, and we discussed how that can be expanded,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu said he wanted “to achieve a balance in the European Union’s not always friendly relations with Israel.”

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