Poland stayed away from a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem on Tuesday, but Hungary and Slovakia gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some reason to smile by announcing the opening of diplomatic representations in Jerusalem.
While Tuesday’s meetings were originally panned as a summit of the four Visegrad Group countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – it was downgraded to bilateral talks between Netanyahu and the visiting prime ministers of each of the three other countries after Poland backed out because of anger over Israeli comments regarding complicity in the Holocaust and Polish antisemitism.
After meeting separately with each of the prime ministers, Netanyahu then hosted them all for lunch at his residence.
Poland continues to wait for an apology from Israel for comments made by newly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Sunday – which led to Warsaw’s decision not to send anyone to the Jerusalem meeting – that the Poles “imbibe antisemitism with their mothers’ milk.”
“We leave it to Israeli leaders to choose what form of reaction they will have and who will react, but it should be a unified and definite one,” Reuters quoted Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski as saying.
US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher waded into the controversy on Tuesday, saying in a Twitter post in Polish that “among close allies, such as Poland and Israel, there is no place for such offensive comments as yesterday’s statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a former deputy foreign minister, seemed to agree with her, characterizing Katz’s comment in an Army Radio interview as “miserable,” and saying that it “is not possible for the foreign minister to call 38 million citizens of a country friendly to Israel as antisemites from their mothers’ milk. Factually, of course, that is not correct.”
Netanyahu has still not commented on the matter publicly, and officials were skeptical that he would issue an apology on such a highly emotive issue less than two months before an election.
Asked about the matter at a press opportunity with Netanyahu, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that he was “sure that Israel and Poland will continue cooperation.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban – who said that the four countries agreed at the last Visegrad summit in Budapest two years ago to hold a summit in Israel – added that he hoped a full summit will indeed take place in Israel “later on.”
Orban said that it would have “been better” had Poland been present in the meeting, and that Hungary – friendly with both Israel and Poland – hopes that the two countries resolve the issue.
Orban, who was last in Israel in July and has met with Netanyahu two other times in other capitals since then, announced that his country will set up a trade delegation with “diplomatic status” in Jerusalem.
“We will have an official presence in Jerusalem,” Orban said. “So I hope it will be a good step forward to improve even more the relationship between the Israeli people and Hungary.”
Netanyahu referred to the trade office as a Jerusalem extension of the Hungarian embassy.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini announced that his country will “open very soon in Jerusalem a new cultural, information and innovation center” that will be served by one of only four diplomats Slovakia has posted around the world responsible for innovation.
With these moves, Hungary and Slovakia will join the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, which have opened some kind of delegation in Jerusalem – though not an embassy. The Czech Republic set up a trade and tourism mission in Jerusalem, called the Czech House, in November, and Australia – which recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December – has also announced an intention to open a trade embassy in the capital.
After meeting Orban, Netanyahu praised Hungary for “confronting the lies that are put forward against Israel” in the EU and forums such as the UN Human Rights Committee.
“You stand up for Israel and you stand up for the truth and I want to thank you for it. It is a very important alliance,” Netanyahu said.
Orban said that he discussed the upcoming European Parliament elections with Netanyahu, and explained its importance not only for Europeans, but “here as well.”
Orban, who has been dogged for years by charges of antisemitism because of his campaign against George Soros, said he would like to see an outcome “which helps us push back the antisemitism in Europe. And we will make clear that we need new leaders and leadership in the European Union, which never finances NGOs – from public European Union money – that interfere in political issues and are anti-Israel. We don’t accept that kind of behavior and practice.”
Czech Prime Minister Babis, after his meeting with Netanyahu, declared that Israel was his country’s “strategic partner in the Middle East.” This was his first visit to Israel, and he and Netanyahu announced that the two countries will hold a government-to-government meeting later this year in Prague. Babis said he hoped that the Czech acquisition of an Israeli mobile air-defense radar system will be finalized at that meeting.
Before meeting Netanyahu, Babis – whose country has a thriving auto industry – visited the Mobileye plant in Jerusalem.