‘Crisis over’: Israeli, Polish FMs sign deal to mend ties, return envoy to Tel Aviv

Years-long dispute appears to be drawing to a close after Eli Cohen signs agreement in Warsaw on student tours to Nazi camps; contents of deal remain under wraps

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in Warsaw on March 22, 2023 (Foreign Ministry)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in Warsaw on March 22, 2023 (Foreign Ministry)

Israel and Poland took a major step toward ending a multi-faceted diplomatic crisis on Wednesday, as the two countries’ foreign ministers signed an agreement to immediately allow for the resumption of Israeli youth Holocaust trips to Poland.

In addition, Poland agreed to return its ambassador to Israel for the first time since July 2021.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen signed the agreement with his Polish counterpart Zbigniew Rau in Warsaw.

After the two diplomats met, the Foreign Ministry put out a statement declaring “the crisis is over.”

It did not give any information on the contents of the agreement. A ministry official told The Times of Israel that details of the agreement will only be released after the Knesset approves it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the development, saying: “I am sure that it will lead to even closer cooperation between the two countries.”

The countries have been locked in conflict over the Holocaust trips for several years. The Foreign Ministry previously said the Polish government was trying to control the Holocaust studies curriculum taught to Israeli teens.

Visitors to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp after the March of the Living annual observance, in Oswiecim, Poland, April 28, 2022. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The agreement was finalized last Thursday after a delegation led by Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levi flew to Warsaw to meet with Polish counterparts. The group included officials from the foreign and education ministries and the Shin Bet security agency (disagreements had also pertained to security arrangements for Israeli groups).

News of the agreement emerged in early March. Netanyahu hailed the agreement then, saying that “the lessons of the Holocaust can be learned in many ways, but there is nothing better than seeing for yourself.”

The two erstwhile allies have also been in a diplomatic spat over Holocaust restitution since July 2021, when Poland’s legislature passed a law effectively cutting off any future restitution to the heirs of property seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Israel recalled its envoy to Warsaw for consultations the following month. Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid advised Poland’s ambassador to Israel to remain on vacation in his homeland, and instructed Israel’s new ambassador to Poland, Ya’acov Livne, to remain in Israel.

Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne pays his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw on July 12, 2022. (Courtesy)

Since then, the two sides have slowly deescalated the tensions, though Poland never rescinded the law. Livne took up his post in Warsaw in February 2022 to coordinate Israeli efforts to extract citizens from Ukraine and to provide aid to Kyiv. Two Polish lawmakers visited the Knesset in June, the first to do so since 2017.

Despite promises in July from Poland’s President Andrzej Duda to return its envoy to Israel, he has yet to do so.

Speaking in English after their meeting in Warsaw, Cohen said that he “came here to restore the relationship between our countries.”

“I am convinced that Israel and Poland share not only a rich history but also a common future, and it is our responsibility to build it together,” he said.

He turned to the Iranian threat, saying Tehran destabilizes and endangers Europe.

“ A clear and firm voice, combining international collaboration with a decisive message to Iran, is essential,” said Cohen.

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