JERUSALEM — It could have been another achievement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could boast of in his frantic election campaign. The prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — the Visegrad Group, or V4 — accepted his invitation to hold last month’s summit in Jerusalem, Israel’s controversial capital.
Then came Israel Katz, the acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, and spoiled it all.
“Poles collaborated with the Nazis,” Katz asserted in a TV interview on the eve of the summit. He quoted former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as having said that Poles “suckled anti-Semitism from their mothers’ milk.”
That affront the Poles would not bear. They canceled their participation, leaving the others who did come to hold informal and bilateral meetings.
Cultivating the right
The invitation to meet in Jerusalem was part of Israel’s attempt to cultivate relations with the EU’s eastern and central European members. Those countries, especially the right-wing, nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary, have been critical of the mainstream, Western, liberal EU members.
Netanyahu has attended summit meetings of the Visegrad Group, the three Baltic States and the Craiova Forum that includes Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.
He complained to the V4 that Israel was being criticized “more than any other place in the world.”
“I unabashedly asked the help of my friends here in making, correcting … a distorted position, a distorted view on Israel in the EU,” he said at a press conference with the leaders of the Baltic states.
Much of the friction is over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem which, the EU maintains, violate international law.
The EU has deterred Israel from evicting Palestinian refugees from a decades-old encampment beside the Jerusalem-Jericho road. It sought to have Israel label goods produced in the settlements and deny them customs benefits available to products made in Israel proper. It wants Israel to pay for, or return, EU-funded materials that Israel destroyed or confiscated from West Bank Palestinians; Israeli scientists in the occupied territories are not eligible for EU research grants; and it supports Israeli NGOs that criticize the government.
Israel and nationalist governments share perceptions, noted Joanna Dyduch in a paper published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Netanyahu’s coalition is the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s 70 years history.
According to Dyduch, having experienced Soviet domination, the Visegrad four share the view that “they are entities which continually need to be defended.” They focus on power relations while “liberalism, which emphasizes the significance of the individual, human rights and civil liberties, is often consciously portrayed as being inadequate, or even dangerous.”
Netanyahu strikes a sensitive chord among European leaders when he addresses threats to their security.
“The biggest common adversary to our common civilization is the force of militant Islam, its radical forces, the terrorists that seek to bring down our planes, bombard our cities, murder our civilians,” he said with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at his side.
Israel can help, he said. Its intelligence saved many lives. It built a border fence that blocks illegal migrants, has an effective airport security system and is tops in cybertechnology.
Turning point was Turkey
The breakthrough to those countries followed the deterioration of its relations with Turkey. The Israeli air force could no longer train in Turkish skies and needed an alternative, the Foreign Ministry’s former Director General Alon Liel recalled.
It started warming relations with Turkey’s enemies, Greece and Cyprus, then with Bulgaria and Romania. A very strong friendship ensued and produced “excellent results in reducing EU pressure,” Liel said.
Israel then decided to expand ties to other former East Bloc countries that were interested in its security technologies, weapons and intelligence to cope with the influx of Syrian refugees and militant Islam.
Political gains, dangers
Security cooperation intensified and political gains emerged.
Hungary and Poland sided with Israel in U.N. and EU forums. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania blocked a proposal that all 28 EU states criticize the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. EU foreign ministers differed on whether to let Netanyahu address one of their breakfast meetings. Lithuania went ahead and invited him.
The EU sanctioned Israeli firms that were conspicuously based in the occupied territories but did not pursue others who were discreet, recalled Avi Primor, a former ambassador to the EU.
Nevertheless, former Israeli ambassadors criticized the close ties with right-wing governments as being short-sighted, on thin ice, and severing an umbilical cord to Western culture.
It places Israel with allies such as Orban, “who distances himself from democracy and his campaign contains anti-Semitic characteristics,” said Nimrod Goren, head of the Israeli Institute for Regional and Foreign Policy.
Israel’s agreements with the EU must be renewed or updated periodically, and each member state can block it. Israel’s close ties with the United States and memories of the Holocaust moderates them, but if Israel would resist U.S. pressure, “the Europeans will act more decisively,” Primor predicted.