Gerald M. Steinberg

Israel’s National Interests vs. Never Again

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s practice of cozying up to nationalist governments and political parties in Europe has been a major cause of discomfort and opposition for many Israelis and Diaspora Jews, including those who otherwise support his foreign policy. Long before the latest conflict over Netanyahu’s reference in Warsaw to Polish collaboration with the Nazis, followed by explosive response of Poland’s Prime Minister, many of us cringed, to understate the case, whenever Israeli leaders appear to appease the revisionist demands of the Eastern Europeans.

Last year, Netanyahu gave his blessing to a slightly watered down version of Poland’s law which seeks to prevent historians, or anyone else, from mentioning extensive Polish collaboration or the murderous pogroms against survivors. Professor Yehuda Bauer, a top scholar at Yad Vashem, referred to the Israeli endorsement as a “betrayal” of “the memory of the Holocaust.”

Similarly, there was strong criticism when Netanyahu traveled to Lithuania and embraced the country’s leaders. Lithuania is one of the worst offenders in the Eastern European form of Holocaust denial, erasing the central role of their citizens in the Nazi extermination. In this country, as in Poland and elsewhere, many of the perpetrators of these atrocities are honored as heroic fighters against the Soviet Communists. As the Wiesenthal Center’s Ephriam Zuroff declared, they repeatedly “refuse to acknowledge the massive scope of Lithuanian participation in the murders,” and do everything they can “to undermine the uniqueness of the Holocaust, by promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes.”

Surely, Mr. Netanyahu knew all of this. Netanyahu has always been very passionate on the subject and on the stain of the Shoa that continues to cover Europe. His remarks in Warsaw, in response to a question from an Israeli journalist, whether planned or spontaneous, were a reminder of his position.

The question, therefore, is why he seemed to go out of his way to embrace the Eastern European nationalist officials, and give them the legitimacy to erase the history of collaboration, that only the head of the Jewish state can bestow?

The answer is national interest – the urgent need, as Netanyahu sees it, for allies. In the 28-member European Union (27 after the expected UK Brexit), the dominant westerners (Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, etc.) are pursuing policies on Iran and the Palestinians which are widely seen as very dangerous for Israel. And like Israelis, Eastern Europeans resent Western Europe’s pervasive condescension and arrogant attempts to manipulate public opinion. If 10 or more EU members (possibly including the Italian government) would make common cause with Israel, this would make a major difference.

In the United Nations, Netanyahu hopes that these countries will force Europe to oppose the virulent “war crimes” campaigns and the BDS movement. The opponents of the UN’s immoral propaganda war against Israel, in which the EU often participates, currently include the US, Australia and, at times, Canada. If enough Europeans changed sides, this would make a big difference.

The dilemma that Israel faces recalls the situation in 1952, when Prime Minister Ben Gurion restored relations with Germany, a few short years after the Shoa. Facing the ongoing Arab threat, and the challenge of settling the Shoa survivors and waves of Jews expelled from Arab countries, Israel desperately needed the reparations and weapons that Germany agreed to provide — this was a vital national interest, according to Ben Gurion.

But Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, condemned the Prime Minister for betraying the memories of the 6 million. After the Shoa, Germany was a black hole in the center of Europe, and, morally, should have remained as such for decades, or perhaps forever. Begin and other opponents led highly emotional protests that erupted into violence.

In response, as Israel’s leader, Ben Gurion and his defenders highlighted the enormous responsibility they had of looking forward, and ensuring Israel’s survival. In negotiating reparations from Germany, he took a pragmatic approach.

Netanyahu’s willingness to make common cause with today’s European nationalists is not the same as Germany in 1952. But unlike Adenauer and the Germans of that era, who accepted the moral responsibility for the Shoa, the leaders of these movements in Poland, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere erase the antisemitism and the role of their countries and citizens. Despite the efforts to work around these realities, at some point, an explosion was inevitable, and it has now happened. The depth and reality of Eastern European revisionism and antisemitism are too stark to be papered over.

For now, it appears that the moral barriers to Israel’s effort to nurture an Eastern Europe coalition to balance the hostility from the West are too high. No Israeli leader can acquiesce to efforts to rewrite history, erase antisemitism, and delete the crimes of the Holocaust. Whether the common interests remain despite Israel’s refusal to accept these campaigns, and whether Poland and the others will eventually realize that their history will not disappear, remain to be seen.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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