Croatian pres. wants to deepen ties despite canceled plane deal

This is the highest level Croatian visit since the sale was nixed, a sign that canceling the deal did not irreparably harm ties.

July 30, 2019 02:23
3 minute read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a joint press conference with Croa

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a joint press conference with Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in Jerusalem July 29, 2019. (photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / REUTERS)

Despite disappointment earlier this year that a $500 million deal to purchase upgraded F-16s from Israel fell through, Croatia wants to deepen its friendship with Israel and turn it into a strategic partnership, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said Monday.

Following separate meetings with President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Grabar-Kitarovic tweeted, “The F-16 Barak project did not come to fruition. Nevertheless, our partnership with Israel continues and we’ll build our relations and strategic partnership, including in the defense sector.”

The US nixed the sale of 12 Israeli upgraded F-16s to Croatia at the end of last year, demanding that Israel sell the planes without the added sophisticated technological equipment. Without the upgrades, the US argued, Croatia would have purchased the planes directly from the US.

This is the highest level Croatian visit since the sale was nixed, a sign that canceling the deal did not irreparably harm ties. It is Grabar-Kitarovic’s third visit since becoming president in 2015, and she will be coming back in January for a fourth time to take part in a gathering at Yad Vashem, which will be attended by numerous world leaders to commemorate 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Croatia, along with the other former Iron Curtain countries – with the exception of Slovenia – is considered among the more supportive countries of Israel in the EU. It has broken with the majority of EU countries on a number of occasions, and either voted for Israel or abstained in international forums.

Croatia is taking over the rotating presidency of the EU in January, and Grabar-Kitarovic said at a media opportunity with Netanyahu before their meeting that she wants to reassure Israel that it will have a friend at the helm of the EU.

Netanyahu, in his comments, said that Iran wants to send humanity back to the Middle Ages and Israel is playing a key role in preventing that. “Israel is at the forefront of the struggle against radical Islam. If Israel was not here in the Middle East, then I think the Middle East would fall to radical Islam,” he said. “The fact that we are, the fact that we protect ourselves, is obviously very important for us, but by defending ourselves we are actually defending the entire Middle East, and by defending the Middle East, we defend Europe.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz thanked Croatia for the support Zagreb gives Israel in international forums, and said that when Croatia takes over the EU presidency, “that is the time for the EU to alter its policies in order to ensure that Iran never achieves nuclear weapons.” The world must unite against Iran, he said, calling for Europe to join the sanctions imposed by the United States.

Despite the very warm welcome Grabar-Kitarovic received at the official level, not everyone was as excited about her visit. First and foremost, Efraim Zuroff – head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – said of Grabar-Kitarovic that “She has done some highly problematic things,” citing three incidents in particular.

In the first incident, in 2016, the Croatian president was photographed in Canada with émigrés and the flag of the fascist Nazi era Ustaše, in power between 1941-1945 in the NDH (Independent State of Croatia) that was allied with the Nazis. They killed an estimated 30,000 Jews and ran the infamous concentration camp at Jasenovac where tens of thousands of Serbs and Roma were also killed.

In the second incident, Zuroff said, the Croatian president said during a 2018 visit to Argentina that “after World War II, many Croats found a space of freedom in Argentina where they could testify to their patriotism and express their justified demands for the freedom of the Croatian people and their homeland.” This comment was widely panned by opposition in Croatia, who said that Ustaše war criminals, as well as Nazis like Mengele and Eichmann, found “space for freedom” in Argentina.

And the third problematic incident, during a radio interview in 2016, was her gushing over the band Thompson and its lead singer Marko Perkovic “I adore listening to Thompson, and I also listened to him often in the car with the children while they were little,” she said of the singer who was banned in a number of countries because of songs glorifying Ustaše massacres at concentration camps in Croatia, and what Zuroff said were lyrics that could be considered incitement to murder.

Zuroff said that he was not opposed to Israel inviting Grabar-Kitarovic, but that it should pose tough questions and make clear to her that these kinds of endorsements are unacceptable.

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