Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis on Tuesday urged Israel to give
international sanctions on Iran a chance, but at the same time said Iranian
threats to “wipe Israel off the map” were unacceptable.
In an exclusive
interview with The Jerusalem Post, he also called for maintaining “a positive
momentum” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began in Jordan in
January. He supports a Palestinian state created through a negotiated two-state
Azubalis hailed the close ties between Israel and Lithuania,
and looked forward to the inauguration of direct flights between the two
countries in June.
His first visit to Israel marked the 20th anniversary
of his country’s relations with the Jewish state, a bond that he said grew
stronger every year.
In 2011 alone, he noted, Israeli tourism to
Lithuania grew by 62 percent, and his country’s exports to Israel increased by
54%. Israel’s leading pharmaceutical company, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries
Ltd, has a manufacturing plant in Lithuania, and in the last three years, more
than 20 bi-parliamentary and ministerial visits have taken place.
acknowledging the difficult history of Jews in Lithuania, he said he saw
striking similarities between his country and Israel today. In addition, he
pointed out, many of Israel’s leaders, including President Shimon Peres, Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, had “Litvak”
“This is my first visit to this exceptional land,” he said. “Thus
I am sincerely excited to express deep respect toward the Israeli people; to
confirm Lithuania’s commitments toward immortalizing the memory of the past, and
to deepen our special bilateral relationship... for [a] better
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Are you concerned about an Israeli attack on Iran?
solution and the strong pressure of the international community through a
sanctions policy is the way to go.
At the same time, we recognize the
danger for regional peace and stability if Iran does not suspend its
enrichment-related activities and intends to produce nuclear weapons. Threats
heard from Iranian leaders to wipe Israel off the map are not
Lithuania supported the new EU package of sanctions on Iran,
adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in January. It was a very important
step which clearly demonstrated that the EU is united and is taking the
lead.Do you know of any current EU initiative to move the
Israeli-Palestinian talks forward?
Events in the region, including the Arab
Spring, have an impact that needs to be addressed by substantial progress in
peace negotiations which fulfill Israel’s need for security and the Palestinian
Authority’s ambition for statehood.
The EU fully supports the Jordanian
initiative in the framework of the Quartet statement [of September 2011].
Positive momentum should be maintained. Continued direct and frequent exchanges
between the parties is needed for creating a conducive environment to start
substantive negotiations.Does Israel actively turn to countries like
Lithuania to go to bat for it during EU deliberations about the Middle East?
Israel puts a lot of diplomatic effort into presenting, explaining and defending
its position on the Middle East [peace process] not only within the EU, but in
all international forums.Last November, Lithuania was one of only 14
countries to vote with Israel against Palestinian membership in UNESCO. Why did
you take this stand? Has it created problems with the Palestinians and/or the
Lithuania supports a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state
living side-by-side with a secure Israel. Regarding the vote at UNESCO, we
considered the case in the broader context of the then-ongoing deliberations at
the UN Security Council regarding Palestine‘s application for full membership in
the United Nations and continued efforts by the Quartet to restart direct
Lithuania would welcome the future Palestinian state as a
member of international organizations at an appropriate time and under the right
circumstances.Do you think Israel is treated fairly in the EU? How is
your stance on Israel different from that of the EU in general?
The EU relations
with Israel are rich, diverse and valuable for both sides. The EU always
recognized that Israel shares European values – democracy, human rights and
fundamental freedoms. Lithuania values the work done by Israel, and it
will continue advocating for the EU-Israeli relations upgrade along with other
EU member countries.Why do you think that, in general, the former Iron
Curtain countries that entered the EU have a more favorable view of Israel than
First, Israel, the Jewish people and Lithuania enjoy a very
special relationship, which [comes of a] 600-year history of two nations living
side-by-side. Lithuanian history and culture couldn’t be conceivable
without a colossal contribution of Lithuanian Jews – Litvaks.
Litvaks have left an important and deep footprint in the history, culture,
science and business not only in Lithuania, but also in Israel and in many other
countries. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset
Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, [former Supreme Court
president] Aharon Barak and many, many other most prominent people and
outstanding personalities who are recognized and respected all over the world
belong to the same family – the family of Litvaks.
Third, we as small
nations suffer the same fate, facing threats by bigger neighbors.
finally, the present-day Lithuania, like Israel, is a young, dynamic country
with much untapped potential. We seek a positive bilateral agenda for the
benefit and well-being of our two countries and peoples.Why has
maintaining strong ties been important for your country? What more can be done
to improve those ties? How can Israel help Lithuania, and how can Lithuania help
The ties are of exceptional importance. It is the solidarity in
commemorating the great and the tragic pages of our past; and it is the belief
that we can be very helpful to each other. I see trade, energy innovations,
tourism, and policy coordination on different international platforms as the
most promising areas for mutually beneficial cooperation.
Our interest in
closer partnership is strongly supported by the Lithuanian government efforts to
rebuild the ties with the Lithuanian Jewish community, Lithuanian Jews living in
Israel and worldwide, as well as [efforts] to build bridges for close
cooperation between future generations.
We also do our best [to ensure]
that the nightmare of the Holocaust, which was the greatest tragedy in our
history, would be properly memorialized. In order to immortalize the remembrance
of the Holocaust victims we actively promote Holocaust education and research.
This is the right and the only path for building mutual trust, solidarity and
And I have no doubts that our joint efforts will lead us
to very positive outcomes – there will be more Lithuanians in Israel and more
Israelis in Lithuania.Can you speak of future economic ventures between
the two countries and the role start-ups can play in your country?
We all admire
Israel’s economic miracle, where a small country without natural resources
produces more start-up companies than the world’s major economies.
has a worldwide leading venture capital sector, which is extremely important for
early-stage innovative start-ups. Lithuania is developing a venture
capital program aimed at financing innovative science and business projects. The
best experience of countries like Israel is of great importance for us. Israel’s
venture capital funds and technological incubators are welcome to be active
partners in creating [the] necessary ecosystem for early-stage start-ups in
I see a great potential for our countries’ common projects in
We are glad to have in Lithuania one of the biggest companies
of Israeli capital, “Sicor Biotech”/TEVA. It encourages the further development
of the modern biotechnological pharmaceutical industry in Lithuania, which is
one of the most important fields of the new economy. The company also
encourages the development of such sciences as biotechnology and genetic
engineering in the Lithuanian universities.How important is
Israeli/Jewish tourism for Lithuania? What initiatives are there to increase
Lithuania and Israel are bound together by common history and
culture. Therefore, tourists of our countries might be interested to travel not
only for sightseeing, but also for cultural, historical and especially
sentimental purposes. We have a unique heritage of Jewish culture and history;
Vilnius was once even called the Northern Jerusalem.
We encourage our
tourism sector operators to participate in tourism fairs held in your country
and to propose attractive tourism packages for Israeli tourists. In 2011, the
number of Israeli tourists traveling to Lithuania increased by 62%. This year,
Lithuania has participated in the International Mediterranean Tourism Market in
I am sure that the opening of direct Vilnius- Tel Aviv flights
[in June] will certainly boost tourism flows between both countries.You
have supported the criminalization of denying communist crimes. Why has
this been so important? Has this created tensions with the Jewish community in
Lithuania and/or with Israel?
On June 15, 1940, the Soviet Union annexed
Lithuania, and Jews suffered [along with] the whole Lithuanian nation. Jewish
religious and Zionist organizations, the Hebrew schools, newspapers and
libraries with Zionist orientation were closed. Most owners of industrial and
commercial enterprises were labeled “enemies of the people” and exiled to
Siberia. A number of famous Jewish politicians and social activists found their
way to the Gulags. Some of them were exiled before the mass deportations of
mid-June 1941, when around 20,000 people were deported from Lithuania, a
considerable part of them from the Jewish elite.
The consequences of both
totalitarian occupations [i.e., the Soviets and the Germans] for the people of
Lithuania were painful. That’s why the parliament of Lithuania took a firm stand
to prohibit any totalitarian symbols – both Soviet and Nazi.
Second Soviet period (1944- 1990), many Holocaust survivors tried to emigrate to
Palestine, later to Israel, the USA, Western Europe and other
countries. Those Jews who stayed in Lithuania also suffered from Soviet
repression and were persecuted for any attempt to join their people in Israel.
So for many of my [Lithuanian Jewish compatriots, who lived under the Stalinist
regime at that time], it is understandable [what this means].
there are some personalities who had another opinion – not only among Jews, but
also among some Russians, Belarusians and even among Lithuanians, who actively
collaborated with the Soviet regime and even now admire it.
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