Poland moves to end spat with Israel over PM comments, blames media manipulation

Warsaw, incensed by incorrect reports Netanyahu said ‘Polish nation’ cooperated with Nazis, says it got clarifications; still, Israeli envoy called for dressing down

Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen during the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle east in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019 (Janek SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen during the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle east in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019 (Janek SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Poland on Friday moved to settle a brief diplomatic spat with Israel over comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Polish collaboration with the Nazis, saying 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.

And 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, Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari was summoned by Poland’s Foreign Ministry for a dressing down over the issue, The Times of Israel confirmed Friday. Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately comment on this development, which was first reported in Polish media.

The crisis emerged after Netanyahu was asked by The Times of Israel at the Warsaw Mideast summit 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 of 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 (subsequently corrected) mischaracterized the Israeli leader’s quote as saying the Polish nation had collaborated with the Nazis. 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.

Polish President Andrzej Duda ,left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk after a group photo at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

The initial news reports led Polish President Adrzej Duda to threaten to pull out of a high-level summit slated to take place in Israel.

Duda wrote on Twitter that if Netanyahu indeed made the comments, he would offer to host an upcoming meeting of the so-called Visegrad group himself instead of holding the meeting in Israel.

Israel is set to host the the prime ministers of the four countries in the group — Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babis, Slovakia’s Peter Pellegrini, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban — in Jerusalem on February 18-19.

“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.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari. (YouTube screenshot)

On Friday morning Krzysztof Szczerski, head of the presidential office, said on Twitter: “We received official explanations from the Israeli side regarding the alleged quotation of the comments of the Israeli Prime Minister; it looks like the article in the Jerusalem Post is an example of malicious journalistic manipulation. It’s good that it was explained after our intervention.”

On Thursday Beata Mazurek, deputy speaker of the Polish parliament for Morawiecki and Duda’s ruling Law and Justice party, had said the party would introduce a measure to condemn the “unacceptable comments made during the Middle East conference.”

It was not immediately clear whether that measure had been taken off the table.

In Israel Yair Lapid, head of the opposition’s Yesh Atid party, was combative, issuing a video message Friday morning saying Israeli should not need to provide explanations to the Poles.

“Instead of the Poles apologizing to us for the millions killed in Poland during the Holocaust, for their collaboration with the Nazis, Netanyahu has apologized to them for a second time,” he said.

“His trip to Poland has become a complete public relations and policy disaster. He should have told the Polish prime minister ‘Cancel your flight ticket right now, don’t come here, because we do not cede the memory of the Holocaust, or hold any form of negotiations, because we have national pride and national self-respect, and respect for the memory of the dead.'”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks during an event hosted by the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modi’in, on February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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.

Netanyahu first offered to host a meeting of the Visegrad Group, also known as V4, in July 2017 in Budapest. The summit in Jerusalem will likely touch on ways the four countries can help fight what Netanyahu considers the European Union’s unfair policies toward Israel.

The 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.

“The idea that we distort history or hide it is nonsense,” Netanyahu told reporters Thursday.

He said the law came up in a meeting earlier on Thursday with Morawiecki.

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.

Last July, Netanyahu said he had taken note of the criticism and would address it at a later time, but he has not done so.

“Since then I heard that some of the historians have changed their mind,” he said, refusing to elaborate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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