ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Bucharest official: It's like Romania's envoy meeting Hamas

Israeli envoy meets head of Romanian party accused of antisemitism, drawing rebuke

Foreign Ministry lifts ban on AUR party, which issues statement partly walking back glorification of fascists and objection to Holocaust studies; Yad Vashem: We weren’t consulted

Left to right: Israeli Ambassador to Romania Reuven Azar, AUR party leader George Simion and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan meet at the Romanian parliament in Bucharest, August 28, 2023. (Courtesy: AUR)
Left to right: Israeli Ambassador to Romania Reuven Azar, AUR party leader George Simion and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan meet at the Romanian parliament in Bucharest, August 28, 2023. (Courtesy: AUR)

Israel’s envoy to Romania met Monday with the head of a local right-wing party accused of antisemitism, breaking a boycott by Israel of the party, and drawing criticism from the Yad Vashem Holocaust center and Romanian political figures.

Ambassador Reuven Azar met George Simion, head of the populist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) opposition party, which currently holds 12 percent of parliament seats but is predicted by some to become a major political force in the near future.

The meeting at the parliament in Bucharest — approved by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen — was also attended by a prominent settler leader in the West Bank, Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, who has been working to facilitate support for settlements among right-wing European parties.

AUR issued a statement as part of the sit-down that partly met a list of demands set by Yad Vashem as a condition for holding the meeting, and also backed Israel’s right to build in the settlements.

The nationalist, Christian party was formed in 2018 and rose to prominence with anti-vaccine positions during the COVID-19 pandemic. AUR called Holocaust education a “minor topic” in 2022 after it was mandated in Romanian high schools.

Israel’s then-ambassador, David Saranga, argued that the statement qualified as antisemitic under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which Romania’s government adopted in 2017.

During legislative elections in 2020, AUR shocked most of the country by winning 9% of the national vote, entering parliament for the first time. Some of its leaders have defended the record of historical figures who served in the regime of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu — an ally of Hitler — or were part of the fiercely antisemitic Iron Guard, a revolutionary fascist movement.

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, right, and Romanian Prime Minister Marshal Ion Antonescu in his headquarters during their talks, on January 16, 1943. (AP)

According to official Romanian statistics, between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered or died in territories under Romanian administration during World War II.

In its statement Monday, demanded by Israel, AUR made comments that didn’t meet Yad Vashem’s demands but were acknowledged by Israeli sources as an improvement over the party’s past statements.

The statement said party leader Simion “acknowledged the responsibility of Romania for the Holocaust of the Romanian Jews (in the territories controlled by Romania during World War 2), and expressed his deepest regret.” However, Yad Vashem had also demanded an acknowledgment of the fact that the country not only collaborated with Nazi Germany but also initiated some of the mass killings.

Simion “added that every country, including Romania, should adopt the IHRA definition of Antisemitism and teach, within national history subject, this important page of the past, in order to make sure that all the future generations will know and understand the lack of humanity of those times and why it is vital to avoid such horrors.”

However, the statement didn’t feature support for the government’s current Holocaust studies plan, which teaches the subject separately rather than as part of Romania’s national history.

George Simion, right, and Claudiu Tarziu, the leaders of the Alliance for the Unification of Romanians (AUR), a new political formation that came fourth in the parliamentary elections, gestures during a press conference at the party headquarters in Bucharest, Romania, December 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

AUR’s statement further said Simion “strongly condemned antisemitism, said that AUR Party has zero tolerance for it, and stated that the Romanian criminal legislation punishes severely any manifestations of support and admiration for the war criminals or the members of the Iron Guard who took part to the Holocaust, including Ion Antonescu.”

But that language also fell short of Yad Vashem’s demand for an unequivocal condemnation by the party of the crimes and antisemitism of Antonescu and the Iron Guard.

The statement also said Simion “gladly accepted” Dagan’s invitation to visit the West Bank and Jerusalem, stressing the “historical right of the Jewish people to build and live in communities and cities in Judea and Samaria, the cradle of history of the Jewish people since the days of the Bible.” Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank.

The Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel that the meeting was held to “open a dialogue” with AUR “after it agreed to publicly adopt the four central principles for the State of Israel: Romania’s responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews who were under its control during World War II; the condemnation of antisemitism and the adoption of the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; the prohibition of the glorification of war criminals, led by Ion Antonescu; and support for the inclusion of the commemoration of the Holocaust in the Romanian education system.”

“This is an initial meeting with the party representatives and the discussion with the party in the future will be based on their commitment in this statement. The two discussed the importance of commemorating the Holocaust and the fight against antisemitism, bilateral relations and regional issues,” the Foreign Ministry said.

However, Yad Vashem reacted to the meeting by saying: “In July, we notified the Foreign Ministry that in our view, the conditions justifying a meeting with the AUR party were not met. Over the past few weeks, the Foreign Ministry hasn’t asked again for our opinion and hasn’t updated us on developments.”

Romanian MP and special representative for the Promotion of Memory Policies, Combating Antisemitism and Xenophobia Alexandru Muraru adjusts his kippa during a ceremony commemorating the victims of the Holocaust on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust memorial in Bucharest, Romania, January 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

The meeting was lambasted by Romanian historian Alexandru Muraru, who until recently served as the Romanian government’s special envoy on antisemitism. Muraru likened the meeting to a Romanian official sitting down with the Hamas or Hezbollah terror groups.

“It is incomprehensible how the ambassador of Israel can officially meet and shake hands with a politician who is a proponent of violence in Romanian politics,” he wrote on Facebook. “Ambassador Azar’s gesture creates immense damage to Romanian democracy and public life because it legitimizes an extremist, xenophobic, antisemitic, neo-fascist body. It is unprecedented in the diplomatic policy of the State of Israel in Bucharest from 1990 until today.”

“Mr. Azar, what would you say if the Romanian ambassador in Tel Aviv met with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and shook hands with them? This is exactly what you did to the Romanian state,” Muraru added.

Monday’s development came weeks after the Haaretz daily revealed that Likud MK Amit Halevi had initiated a discussion at the Foreign Ministry in July on reexamining Israel’s stance toward right-wing nationalist parties in Europe.

According to that report, Halevi was invited by Cohen to a meeting with top ministry officials, and decided to end Israel’s official boycott of AUR. The newspaper said the deliberation influenced Cohen’s decision to end the boycott of the AUR and order the ministry to reassess Israel’s stance toward the party, despite Yad Vashem’s opposition.

There has been pressure from activists in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud — including Halevi — and right-wing Israeli organizations to embrace nationalist parties in Europe, which are generally pro-Israel despite often having historical ties to antisemitic figures.

In January, after an administrative unit of Bucharest’s city council refused to dismantle a bust honoring the finance minister in the country’s WWII pro-Nazi government, an AUR parliamentarian accused the Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania — which champions the removal of monuments honoring Nazi figures and collaborators — of “rewriting Romanian history and demolishing the cult of its heroes and martyrs.”

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