First Israeli PM in Vilnius

Netanyahu lands in Lithuania, grandma’s birthplace, in search of European allies

Ahead of meeting with Baltic leaders, PM says he hopes outreach to Eastern European states will help counter EU’s ‘not always friendly’ ties with Israel

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

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AFP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Lithuania on Thursday for a Baltic summit through which he said he hoped to deepen ties with eastern European nations to counter the EU’s “not always friendly” relations with Israel.

Netanyahu, who has Lithuanian roots, was greeted by the Baltic country’s foreign minister at Vilnius airport.

“I want to achieve a balance in the European Union’s not always friendly relations with Israel in order to maintain fairer relations,” Netanyahu said before boarding the plane for the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Lithuania.

“I am doing it through contacts with blocs of European Union countries, Eastern European countries, and now with Baltic countries and other countries, of course.”

Netanyahu will meet the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia together in Vilnius during his visit which is set to last until Sunday. He will also pay tribute to Lithuania’s once vibrant Jewish culture and its tragic end during the Holocaust.

Lithuania has traditionally been one of Israel’s better friends in the European Union.

The Baltic nation was behind Netanyahu’s invitation to meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels last December, irking some EU officials.

“Lithuania and the other Baltic states are probably regarded by Netanyahu as voices that could play the role of Israel’s advocates inside the EU,” Vilnius University professor Ramunas Vilpisauskas said.

Netanyahu has regularly sought sympathetic ears within the EU, particularly among countries that can serve as a counterweight to the critical treatment Israel often receives from Western European nations over its policies in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has also been eager to convince European countries to exert more pressure on Iran after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions — something Israel had advocated.

The EU was one of the signatories to the deal, and European countries have sought to rescue the deal.

They say it is working as intended, keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for now.

Jewish heritage

Lithuania in turn is seeking to expand defense cooperation, notably in cyber security, and wants Israel to take a tougher stance towards Russia, which the Baltic states see as their greatest security threat.

“We need to better understand each other’s security challenges because security is indivisible,” Deividas Matulionis, an adviser for the Lithuanian prime minister, told AFP.

Many Israelis have origins in Lithuania, including Netanyahu’s grandmother, who was born in the northern town of Seduva.

His grandfather hailed from Kreva in what is now Belarus, according to Lithuanian Jewish community spokeswoman, Monika Antanaityte.

Netanyahu will meet with members of the Jewish community in Lithuania and visit a memorial in tribute to Jewish Holocaust victims there.

He will also award a Lithuanian family the title of Righteous among the Nations for having saved their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.

A memorial to the 70,000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, Vilnius, Lithuania, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

“We are greatly honored that Netanyahu will pay so much attention to the Lithuanian Jewish community,” community leader Faina Kukliansky told AFP.

Lithuania was once a hub of Jewish learning and home to more than 200,000 Jews before World War II.

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

The country’s 2.9 million population today includes some 3,000 Jews.

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