Israel hints that Polish PM is playing domestic politics

Polish PM cancels trip to Israel amid spat over Netanyahu Holocaust comments

Morawiecki to send lower level official to Visegrad Group summit in Jerusalem this week as Warsaw fumes over reports of Israeli premier’s comments about Polish culpability

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has canceled a trip to Israel for a high-level summit slated to take place this week, as a diplomatic spat continues over comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Polish collaboration with the Nazis.

The Polish embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed to the Times of Israel that Morawiecki would not attend the summit of the so-called Visegrad Group of central European countries.

Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz was expected to attend instead.

Morawiecki informed Netanyahu that he would not attend the Visegrad summit in Jerusalem in a phone conversation Sunday, Poland’s wPolityce news website reported.  The site said that the conversation between the two was positive nonetheless.

Israel’s Kan broadcaster said Poland had informed Netanyahu that the clarifications it had received regarding comments made by Netanyahu regarding the role of Poles in the Holocaust were not sufficient.

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.

The crisis emerged after 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 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.

US Vice President Mike Pence, his wife Karen, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, his wife Iwona and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara are pictured during a wreath laying ceremony at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, Poland, on February 14, 2019. (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP)

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, Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari was summoned by Poland’s Foreign Ministry for a dressing down over the issue.

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 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 an upcoming 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.”

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.”

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 was due to 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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