Poland’s prime minister on Monday canceled Warsaw’s participation in a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem, branding as “racist” a comment by Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister, who said Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
“The words of the Israeli foreign minister are racist and unacceptable… it is clear that our foreign minister (Jacek) Czaputowicz will not be traveling to the summit,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Polish media.
Poland earlier summoned Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari for a reprimand — the second in four days — and was reportedly weighing the option of recalling its envoy from the Jewish state.
“We are considering recalling the Polish ambassador from Israel,” a source close to Morawiecki was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site. “There is a consensus in Poland that what has been done is very severe and cannot be ignored.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Monday that the summit would now consist of bilateral discussions, and the conference would be rescheduled for later in the year, the Reuters news agency reported.
Morawiecki on Sunday canceled his trip to Israel for the high-level summit, as a diplomatic spat continued over comments made last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Polish collaboration with the Nazis. Czaputowicz had been expected to attend the summit of the so-called Visegrad Group of central European countries in place of the premier.
Israel Katz made the remark in a TV interview on Sunday, after earlier the same day he was appointed acting foreign minister by Netanyahu.
“I am a son of Holocaust survivors and I was even born and grew up in a community made up of Holocaust survivors,” Katz told Channel 13. “The memory of the Holocaust is something we cannot compromise about; it is clear and we won’t forget or forgive.
“In diplomacy you try not to offend, but nobody will change the historical truth to do something like that,” he added. “Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely. As [former prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir said, they suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
On Monday morning Katz told Israel Radio that “the Poles took part in the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Poland became the biggest cemetery of the Jewish people.”
On Sunday night, Polish ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski tweeted in response to Katz that “it is really astonishing that the newly appointed foreign minister of Israel quotes such a shameful and racist remark. Utterly unacceptable.”
The crisis began on Thursday when Netanyahu was asked by The Times of Israel in Warsaw about a controversial agreement between Israel and Poland to end a dispute over a law passed by Warsaw that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust crimes.
Netanyahu denied suggestions that he was going along with historical revisionism: “Here I am saying Poles cooperated with the Nazis. I know the history and I don’t whitewash it. I bring it up,” he said.
He added that “a not insignificant number” of Poles had collaborated and said, “I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”
A Jerusalem Post story (later corrected) mischaracterized the Israeli leader’s quote as saying the Polish nation collaborated with the Nazis. And in some news reports, Netanyahu was quoted as saying “The Poles cooperated with the Nazis.” Netanyahu’s office later clarified that he did not say “the,” and played reporters a recording of the comments to confirm this.
Netanyahu was in Poland for a US-sponsored summit on Mideast security.
Poland later said it had received clarifications from the Israeli government that had alleviated its concerns. The presidential office blamed “media manipulation” by the Jerusalem Post for a misunderstanding about Netanyahu’s comments.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement to similar effect: “The Prime Minister’s comments concerning Poland were misquoted by the Jerusalem Post, which quickly issued a correction clarifying that an error had been made in the editing of the article.”
Netanyahu landed back in Israel late Friday and his office then clarified again: “In a briefing, PM Netanyahu spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland,” it said in a statement. “This was misquoted and misrepresented in press reports and was subsequently corrected by the journalist who issued the initial misstatement.”
Nonetheless, Azari was summoned by Poland’s Foreign Ministry for a dressing down over the issue.
The initial news reports led Polish President Adrzej Duda to threaten to block the high-level summit from taking place in Israel.
Duda wrote on Twitter that if Netanyahu indeed had made the comments, he would offer to host the meeting of the so-called Visegrad group himself instead of holding the meeting in Israel.
“In this situation, Israel is not a good place to meet,” Duda had said.
However, Israel’s embassy in Poland contacted the Polish leadership Thursday night and clarified that Netanyahu “didn’t say the Polish nation carried out crimes against Jews, but only that no one has been sued under the Holocaust law for saying ‘Poles’ collaborated.”
Ambassador Azari said Netanyahu “never mentioned the ‘Polish nation’ in this context… The Jerusalem Post has already changed its article, noting that the earlier version was untrue — it happened at the request of Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
On Sunday, Poland’s wPolityce news website reported that Morawiecki had informed Netanyahu in a phone conversation that he would not attend the Visegrad summit in Jerusalem. The site said that the conversation between the two was positive nonetheless.
A senior Israeli diplomatic official said Israel was “happy” to host Czaputowicz instead, and hinted that Morawiecki was playing to domestic pressures by canceling his visit.
“We expect this summit to become a great success,” the official said in a statement. “We understand that also in Poland there are elections.”
Poland is slated to hold national elections in the coming year.
Israel was set to host the prime ministers of the four countries in the group — Poland’s Morawiecki, the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babis, Slovakia’s Peter Pellegrini, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban — in Jerusalem on February 18-19.
The other premiers are still slated to attend.
Netanyahu has been courting closer ties with Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe as part of a bid to build up a bloc of support within the EU.
The Jerusalem meeting would be the first time the consortium, which was founded in 1991, ever convened outside of Europe.
A dispute over the Polish Holocaust law was resolved last year when Poland softened the law and Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart agreed on a joint declaration stressing the involvement of the Polish resistance in helping Jews. It was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland but Netanyahu faced criticism from historians in Israel, including at Yad Vashem, for agreeing to a statement that they said distorted history.
Leading Israeli historians have harshly criticized the joint statement, arguing it inaccurately adopts the Polish narrative of the Holocaust, overstating Polish efforts to rescue Jews and understating anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles.
Raphael Ahren, Michael Bachner and agencies contributed to this report.