Rethinking Europe

Israel: Confronting Central European Revisionism

How Israel’s new foreign minister deprives Central European nations of moral cover

Takeaways


  • The new Israeli Foreign Minister’s diplomatic goal is about more than just resisting Central European nations’ attempts at rewriting the history of the Holocaust.
  • By confronting Central European revisionism, the new Israeli Foreign Minister, is restoring a degree of integrity to Israel’s claim to be the Jews’ safe haven.
  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to give far-right, authoritarian nationalists in the Visegrad countries political and moral cover. That policy is being abandoned.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid appears to believe that greater engagement with the European Union is likely to be more productive.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently sparked a war of words with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

His goal is more than just resisting Central European nations’ attempts at rewriting the history and legacy of the Holocaust, as well as their leaders’ flirting with right-wing nationalistic and anti-Semitic sentiments.

It’s about morality, stupid!

At the center of the dispute is a bill debated in the Polish parliament that makes it essentially impossible for Jews to claim property their families owned before the Holocaust.

Mr. Lapid denounced the law as “immoral” and warned that “it will seriously harm relations between (our) countries.”

Speaking uncomfortable truths The Israeli foreign minister went on to say that “on Polish soil, millions of Jews were murdered and no law will erase their memory.”

And he added: “We are not interested in Polish money and the very hint is antisemitic. We are fighting for the memory of Holocaust victims, for our national pride, and we will not let any parliament pass laws that aim to deny the Holocaust.”

Against Holocaust denialism

Defense of the legacy of the Holocaust was certain to earn Mr. Lapid points among Israeli and Diaspora Jews, as he maneuvers to replace Naftali Bennett as prime minister in 2023 as part of their coalition agreement.

Alternatively, he may want to emerge as the head of government from an early election, in case Israel’s new coalition collapses prematurely.

Departing from Netanyahu’s policies

Mr. Lapid’s harsh criticism marked a sharp reversal from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance.

He was willing to give far-right, authoritarian nationalists in the Visegrád countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – political and moral cover.

This, in effect, whitewashed their World War II histories as well as their varying degrees of collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of their Jewish communities.

Netanyahu fomenting anti-Semitic sentiment

Mr. Netanyahu appeared to empathize with the authoritarian instincts of the leaders of the Visegrád states.

He did so even if that put the Jewish state at times in the awkward position of looking the other way, if not defending the fomenting of anti-Semitic sentiment.

That was most evident with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s attacks on Hungarian-born liberal philanthropist George Soros.

The Visegrad four and the Palestinians

Mr. Netanyahu also seemed to sympathize with the Central Europeans’ anti-migrant (read anti-Muslim, frequently Christian nationalist) beliefs. And he effectively bought into their willingness to hollow out their democracies and curtail the rights of minorities.

Perhaps, most important, Mr. Netanyahu saw the Visegrad states as a bulwark against European criticism of his hardline policy towards the Palestinians.

New Israeli focus on the EU mainstream

Mr. Lapid appears to believe that greater engagement with the European Union is likely to be more productive.

The timing of Mr. Lapid’s move adds significance to his policy reversal against the backdrop of a number of factors not favoring the hard right.

Hard right out of political luck?

These events range from Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald J. Trump in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, a poor performance of far-right candidates in recent regional elections in France and Germany and stagnating support for Italian populists, as well as Central European leaders like Messrs. Orban and Morawiecki.

By confronting Central European revisionism, Mr. Lapid is restoring a degree of integrity to Israel’s claim to be the Jews’ safe haven — even if that status is called into question by its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

Democracy and foreign policy

The Israeli foreign minister is also piling the pressure on the Central Europeans. After all, his steps follow Joe Biden’s insistence that democratic alliances are a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

Similarly, some West European leaders are telling their Central European colleagues to live up to EU standards. This includes independence of the judiciary and the media as well as minority rights, particularly concerning gender and sexuality, or leave the union.

Israel recalibrating relations with the U.S.

Mr. Lapid’s distancing from Mr. Netanyahu’s erstwhile allies strokes with his simultaneous declaration that Israel would break with the former prime minister’s partisan alignment with Republicans in the United States.

This had threatened to weaken Democratic and bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

Mr. Netanyahu broke with the traditional Israeli policy of ensuring that the Jewish state had bipartisan support in Washington.

Instead, he identified Israel with Mr. Trump’s Republicans because of their uncritical support of hardline Israeli policies.

Mr. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war.

He also put forward a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that wholly supported Mr. Netanyahu’s policies at the expense of the Palestinians.

“Mistakes were made”

“In the past few years, mistakes were made. Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together,” Mr. Lapid told U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during a meeting in Rome.

Mr. Lapid’s bipartisanship does not imply a more moderate approach towards peace with the Palestinians.

After all, he has Mr. Bennett, the current prime minister, an opponent of an independent Palestinian state and a proponent of Jewish settlement policy, as a coalition partner.

Conclusion

It does, however, seem to mean an Israeli policy that is less openly provocative and less in the face of a U.S. administration that maintains support for a two-state solution, even if it does not invest political capital, time and energy in achieving that goal.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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