President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi joined other world leaders and top-ranking military officers in extending condolences to the government, people and army of Poland as well as to the families of the victims of the plane crash that took the lives of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, and other senior dignitaries and military personnel.

Also among the dead were relatives of Polish prisoners of war, mainly armed forces officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia – some of them Jews – who were killed in 1943 in the notorious massacre in the Katyn forest, 19 kilometers west of Smolensk in Russia.

The presidential plane was heading for a memorial ceremony for the victims of the massacre.

Netanyahu, who met with Kaczynski in Poland and sat alongside him less than three months ago at the International Holocaust Awareness ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, issued a statement, saying, “I knew Kaczynski as a Polish patriot, a great friend of Israel and a leader who did much for his people and to further world peace and prosperity.”

Netanyahu said Kaczynski led an important process to begin a new chapter in relations between Poles and Jews, and between Poland and Israel.

Lieberman and Barak also issued statements mourning the loss, with the foreign minister praising Kaczynski as a “true friend” of Israel who proved his friendship in both words and deeds.

Barak said Kaczynski’s death was a “great loss to his people and to the entire world.”

Peres, who had spent a considerable amount of time with Kaczynski in April, 2008, when Peres paid a state visit to Poland for the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, expressed Israel’s shock at the tragedy that struck Poland.

“The news of the tragic accident that has taken the lives of my friend, President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria Kaczynska, and prominent members of Poland’s leadership and its parliament, has been received with a great deal of pain, shock and distress,” said Peres.

“This tragic event is a dreadful blow to the Polish people and to the world at large. My friend, President Kaczynski, was among those who led and advanced change in his country, and represented free Poland, democratic Poland and modern Poland.”

Peres also praised the work of Kaczynski and his wife to promote closer ties between the Poles and Jews by helping to “heal the scars of the past,” and emphasized that bilateral ties between Israel and Poland had been strengthened during Kaczynski’s presidency.

Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev made the point that Kaczynski, who visited Yad Vashem twice, saw importance in maintaining the memory of the Holocaust, and that the subject of Righteous Among the Nations was particularly close to his heart.

Kaczynski was an ardent promoter of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, for which he gave the land when he was mayor of Warsaw. The museum is being built alongside the Warsaw Ghetto monument.

It is not yet known who will represent Israel at Kaczynski’s funeral. According to protocol, it should be Peres, who is leaving for Paris on Tuesday for the dedication of a square to be named in honor of his mentor, and Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion. He may continue on to Poland if the funeral is held later in the week. A spokesperson for Beit Hanassi told The Jerusalem Post that the situation is still unclear.

Among the other victims of the tragedy were Chief of the Polish Army’s General Staff Franciszek Gagor, the Ground Troops’ commander Gen. Tadeusz Buk, Air Force Commander Gen. Andrzej Blasik and the special-purpose troops’ commander Gen. Wlodzimierz Potashinski.

In a condolence message to the Polish Defense Forces and their commanders, as well as to the family of Gagor, Ashkenazi said that he had met with Gagor several times over the past three years. He recalled in particular a NATO conference and a time when Gagor had hosted him while Ashkenazi was in Poland to participate in the March of the Living.

Ashkenazi described Gagor as “a superb army man” and remarked on his keen interest in IDF officers who participated in the Witnesses in Uniform program in which the IDF teaches its young officers about the Holocaust by taking them to the death camps and explaining what happened there. Ashkenazi said that he and Gagor had conversed at length on the program, and it had been of importance to Gagor that the officers meet with counterparts in the Polish Army so that they could realize that Poland’s new generation was also being educated about the lessons of the Holocaust.   

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