Lithuanian FM: Israel’s rapprochement with Russia is ‘shortsighted’
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Interview'Russia is not a superpower; Russia is a super problem'

Lithuanian FM: Israel’s rapprochement with Russia is ‘shortsighted’

Linas Linkevicius addresses his country’s efforts to ‘come clean’ about Holocaust complicity, and why Vilnius won’t recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Lithuania Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius addresses the Atlantic Council's "NATO Engages The Alliance at 70" conference, in Washington, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Lithuania Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius addresses the Atlantic Council's "NATO Engages The Alliance at 70" conference, in Washington, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania’s foreign minister expressed disappointment at Israel’s lack of solidarity with Eastern and Central European countries facing Russian aggression, saying that if Jerusalem wanted others to empathize with its security challenges in the Middle East, it should be forthcoming with support during crises in other regions.

While Jerusalem’s desire to coordinate with Moscow, especially regarding Iran’s activities in Syria, is understandable, Linas Linkevicius said Israel’s rapprochement with Russia was “shortsighted” and unlikely to lead to regional stability.

In an exclusive interview last week, Linkevicius, generally known as one of Europe’s most pro-Israel foreign ministers, also discussed at considerable length an ongoing controversy over the extent of his countrymen’s complicity with Nazi Germany during World War II, including the ongoing glorification of collaborators.

A Vilnius street named after a notorious anti-Semite should be renamed soon, he said, though he stressed that it was not up to the national government but to local authorities, and that the matter is currently in process.

The Holocaust was a “scar on the face of humanity” and Lithuanians need to “come clean” about their role in it, he said. Still, he refused to admit that a significant number of his compatriots eagerly collaborated with the Nazis, saying that the matter was not yet sufficiently studied.

Speaking with The Times of Israel in his Vilnius office Thursday morning, Linkevicius reaffirmed his government’s staunch support of the Jewish state, stressing that he had played an instrumental role in organizing a rare meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the European Union in December 2017 in Brussels.

It was important for the EU to listen to Israel’s arguments, be it on the peace process or the Iranian nuclear question, Linkevicius said. Lithuania will never cease to advocate for Israel’s position in Brussels, he vowed, in the same breath urging Jerusalem to speak out on behalf of small states that feel threatened by Russian expansionism.

“We are always trying to be helpful and to facilitate, but please do so also with the aggression in Eastern Europe: Russia against Ukraine or Moldova. It’s never happening,” he said. “If you want to have this empathy from others for what you’re doing, so just do that.”

Ever since Iran started entrenching itself militarily in Syria, Netanyahu has sought close cooperation with Russia, which included many friendly meetings with President Vladimir Putin. Last month, Israel hosted an unprecedented summit attended by the Russian and American national security advisers.

Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev speaks at a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center-right, US National Security Adviser John Bolton, center-left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton\Flash90)

“Israel’s partnership with Russia, maybe it’s well-calculated — it’s up to Israel to decide with whom they’re partnering, that’s fine. But we doubt the outcome of the partnership with Russia in whatever region’s crisis management, be it Syria or elsewhere.” Linkevicius said, speaking in English.

“We’re not convinced that this leads to some solution. Maybe in the short term you can have some stability, but in the long term it will be a big problem, I believe, [as] the record shows so far. Russia is not a superpower; Russia is a super problem, in our view.”

Israel’s belief that its cooperation with Russia will lead to long-term stability in the region is “a bit shortsighted,” added Linkevicius, who served as Lithuania’s defense minister between 2000 and 2004.

Israel did not condemn Russia for its invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. Rather, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued a toothless statement expressing hope for “peace for all [Ukrainian] citizens” and that the crisis “will be handled through diplomatic means.”

Russian soldiers guard the center of Simferopol, Crimea, March 27, 2014. (AP/Max Vetrov)

Lithuania, a country of three million in Russia’s direct vicinity, was “disappointed” by Israel’s lack of a clear position on the matter, Linkevicius said.

“I raised this issue many times [with my Israeli interlocutors], and I was given the answer that we have sufficient problems ourselves, and we’re just looking into that from the angle of natural interest. I said, fine, fair enough. But this is not the way the international community acts. If we really want to have more compassion and more empathy and more understanding, it’s good to stand very firm on principles and international commitments.”

A diplomatic office in Jerusalem? ‘We’re not playing these games’

The perception that Lithuania has more sympathy for Israel than for the Palestinians is accurate, said Linkevicius, who has been the country’s foreign minister since 2012. Vilnius’s support for Jerusalem was “not ad hoc, not accidental [but] backed by arguments,” he added. At the same time, he stressed, his government wants to remain an “objective” facilitator and therefore will refrain from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We believe that unilateral statements or moves like this will not improve confidence building in the region, which is already fragile and explosive. To add more will not promote dialogue and understanding,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Unlike Hungary and the Czech Republic, Lithuania has no intention of opening a diplomatic mission in the city. “We’re not going to play these games. I do not believe that it’s very productive and rational,” he said.

“Stakeholders, especially those who have influence in the region, should really behave in a more responsible way,” he said. Any unilateral move, be it relating to Jerusalem or a possible annexation of the West Bank, which Netanyahu said he wants to do, would only “mobilize radical forces,” the Lithuanian minister said.

A two-state solution was the only way forward, he said. Lithuania considers Hamas a terrorist organization, but needs to see “more evidence” to apply that designation to Hezbollah. While the UK and Argentina recently declared the Iranian-backed group a terrorist organization, Vilnius does not consider any change in that direction a priority, he said, noting that it would require European consensus.

‘Impossible to forget and even impossible to forgive’

Linkevicius spoke at some length about Lithuania’s efforts to commemorate the Holocaust and restore the country’s tremendous Jewish legacy. More than 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish community was exterminated by the Germans and their local collaborators; 904 non-Jewish Lithuanians are recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

The Holocaust was the worst crime in human history and a “scar on the face of Lithuania,” he said. “It’s impossible to forget and even impossible to forgive. But having said this, we cannot stay in the past.”

Lithuania is among the Central and Eastern European countries accused by some Jewish scholars of minimizing the role of local collaborators and of glorifying national anti-Soviet resistance fighters who took part in anti-Jewish atrocities.

Linkevicius acknowledged that some of his countrymen actively participated in the Holocaust and vowed to do his “utmost” to ensure such people are not being honored in contemporary Lithuania. However, he added that many people Lithuanians revere as freedom fighters genuinely struggled to liberate their country from foreign rule.

“We have to clean up this history, and especially separate [Nazi collaborators from] those who were fighting for the liberation of my country and the [anti-Soviet] partisan movement. And I am really convinced that the majority was fighting for the freedom of Lithuania,” he said. “But there are some facts which were also not yet explored sufficiently, of those who were collaborating. I believe this is in the process.”

Asked if he agrees with the assessment found on the website of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center that a “significant part of the murders was carried out by Lithuanian auxiliary forces,” Linkevicius demurred.

“Significant could be read as a majority. And it was not a majority, as far as I know,” he said.

Accused Nazi collaborator, ‘General Storm’ Jonas Noreika (Courtesy)

Linkevicius said his government was “working quite intensively” to rename a Vilnius street named after Kazys Škirpa, a notorious anti-Semite, and to remove a memorial plaque for Jonas Noreika, a famous Lithuanian partisan who collaborated with the Nazis.

“Of course it’s not okay” that a street is named after Škirpa, he said. But, he added, “It takes time, we’re a democratic country.”

While he expressed understanding for historians who doubt Lithuania’s sincerity to come clean about Holocaust complicity as long as people like Škirpa and Noreika are honored, Linkevicius warned that a sweeping indictment of the Lithuanian people “mobilizes other forces” and creates backlash that makes it more difficult to carry out reforms.

“You cannot over-push, you cannot speed up [this process] more than it’s naturally possible,” he said.

Asked if he can commit that Škirpa Alley be renamed by next year — a demand the local Jewish community has made since 2016 — he noted that if it were up to him, it would happen tomorrow, and that the municipality is currently discussing the issue.

“I hope, and I believe, that it will be done. But I can commit to you that I will do my utmost in order to make it happen. I believe it’s important for my country, and for history.”

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