Anatomy of a crisis: How Israel-Polish relations collapsed

A day-by-day account of how a crisis that started with a mistaken quote unraveled Israeli-Polish ties.

February 18, 2019 18:37
3 minute read.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attends a commemoration event at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, during the ceremonies marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Thursday February 14

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Israeli reporters in a closed door meeting in Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. Reporters were not allowed to tape the briefing.

Netanyahu said that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis” to kill Jews during the Holocaust. Journalists mistakenly expanded on his comments, adding in the word “The Poles” and then paraphrasing - as The Jerusalem Post did - to include the Polish nation. 

Poland is sensitive about culpability for Jewish deaths in the Holocaust and has a law prohibiting statements that hold the Polish nation responsible for the killing of Jews in World War II.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visit the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019

Friday February 15

In the pre-dawn hours of Friday, before Netanyahu took off from Warsaw, the Prime Minister’s Office played reporters a section of its tape from the briefing to clarify Netanyahu’s comments. Media reports were adjusted accordingly. In Warsaw later that morning, the Polish Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s Ambassador to clarify Netanyahu’s comments.

After Netanyahu landed in Israel in the afternoon, the Prime Minister’s Office put out the following statement. “In a briefing, PM Netanyahu spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland. This was misquoted and misrepresented in press reports and was subsequently corrected by the journalist who issued the initial misstatement.”

Saturday February 16

Israel was set to become the first country to host the Visegrad Group for a summit. This is a group of four eastern European countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, known as the V4. The Prime Ministers from all four countries were scheduled to arrive Tuesday for Wednesday’s meeting. The Israeli-Polish crisis appeared to be resolved.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Visegrad Group (V4) Prime Ministers, Czech Republic’s Bohuslav Sobotka (L), Hungary’s Viktor Orban (C to R), Slovakia’s Robert Fico and Poland’s Beata Szydlo attend a news conference in Budapest, Hungary in July.

Sunday February 17

Poland announced that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke with Netanyahu and told him that he would not attend the V4, and would instead send Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. A diplomatic official in Jerusalem hinted that Morawiecki was likely playing to his voter base by explaining that there was a Polish election in the fall.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki meets Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler

Polish society was already shocked when Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz was murdered during a public charity event in January. Adamowicz was mourned by thousands, in a Tweet in his memory one of his famous quotes was given as "I love Gdansk, I think it is the greatest city in the world!"

Called  “a longtime friend of the Jewish community” by the American Jewish Committee, his killing demonstrated the violent clash between Left and Right that is raging in Polish society on a variety of issues - from the role Poland should take in the EU to women's rights and how Polish-Jewish relations are to be understood. 

Monday February 18

 On only his second day on the job, Israel’s new acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz angered Poland and created a full blown crisis. He spoke with Israel’s i24 News channel about the issue and quoted former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had once stated “the Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mothers’ milk.” Katz added, “No one will tell us how to remember the fallen.”

Poland demanded an apology. The Polish Foreign Ministry tweeted that Katz’s remarks “are not only insulting, but also stir up negative emotions between our nations and contribute to increasing anti-Polonism and anti-Semitism. We expect an adequate reaction from the Israeli side.”

When none was forthcoming, Morawiecki canceled Poland’s participation in the summit all together.

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