Poland pulls out of Israel summit in row over WW2 role

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu have argued about the Holocaust before. (AFP pic)

WARSAW: Poland pulled out of a planned summit in Israel on Monday, its prime minister said, after Israel’s acting foreign minister said “many Poles” had collaborated with the Nazis in World War Two and shared responsibility for the Holocaust.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki branded the remarks “racist and unacceptable”.

He had previously said he would not join Tuesday’s gathering of central European leaders in Israel but said that no Polish officials would now attend.

The leaders of the other three ‘Visegrad Group’ nations – Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – all still planned to attend the talks, Israel said, but Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said they would instead consist of bilateral discussions and that the summit would be rescheduled for later in 2019.

The diplomatic spat between Poland and Israel has been escalating since Friday when Israeli media reported remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday suggesting Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

Many Poles still refuse to accept research showing thousands of their countrymen participated in the Holocaust in addition to thousands of others who risked their lives to help the Jews.

Israel’s Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz exacerbated the dispute on Monday when he told Israel’s Army Radio: “Many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and took part in the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Katz also quoted comments attributed to Israel’s late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir: “Shamir said that every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk. Nobody will tell us how to express our stance and how to honour the dead.”

Diplomatic setback

The Polish decision is a blow for Netanyahu, who had hoped the Visegrad summit would burnish his diplomatic credentials ahead of Israel’s Apr 9 election.

He sees the Visegrad-4 as a counterbalance to western European countries, which tend to be more critical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

“There will be no full V4 meeting. Three PMs are arriving will hold meetings with (Israel’s) PM,” Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said in a text message.

Morawiecki said he was in “constant contact” with Poland’s Visegrad partners and said they understood Warsaw’s stance.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of Poland, has also fostered good relations with Israel and was due to hold a bilateral meeting with Netanyahu on Monday, his press chief said.

Before World War Two Poland was home to one of the world’s biggest Jewish communities but it was almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis.

Tensions between Israel and Poland also rose last year after Poland introduced new legislation that would have made the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps” punishable by up to three years in prison.

After pressure from the US government and an outcry in Israel, Poland watered down the legislation, removing the prison sentences.