The airport accident that grounded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plane in Warsaw was the final touch to a three-day trip that had included a false war declaration, a leaked video, and a diplomatic flare-up with Poland.
The visit, which took place Wednesday to Friday in the middle of a tight election race, was designed to highlight the strong Israeli-US alliance and Netanyahu’s prominent role on the world stage after a decade on the job.
It was a well-scripted rollout. Netanyahu held highly publicized talks with US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, met with Oman’s foreign minister, and sat at the Warsaw summit’s head table next to Yemen’s foreign minister.
But it was the accidental and/or deliberate mishaps that occurred on the sidelines of the summit, well documented by journalists and social media, which stole the show.
A “fake” war declaration?
The setting should have said everything about the message. If Netanyahu had meant to declare war on Iran, he might have picked a better backdrop than an outdoor skating rink.
The classic winter scene was ideal, however, for a public relations video for his Facebook page. Journalists hanging out in his hotel lobby hoping to snag a scoop, saw his official photography team heading out and followed to catch Netanyahu on the street.
Speaking both to them and his crew, he commented on the reason for his trip, the Warsaw summit and the gathering there of representatives of 60 nations to talk about regional threats, primarily Iran.
Then he made, what almost appeared to be a Freudian slip. He stated that leading Arab countries “are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”
It was a statement that reframed the summit as the opening step toward launching a regional war against Iran, rather than a gathering to find a diplomatic halt to its aggression.
It came at a time when both Israel and the US have ratcheted up their rhetoric against Tehran and Israeli military tensions with Iran have increased along the northern border with Syria.
Most of the journalists did not hear the word “war,” which was difficult to discern when Netanyahu spoke. But they picked up on it pretty quickly when the Government Press Office transcribed the quote with the word “war” and sent it out to the media, both in Hebrew and in English.
The Prime Minister’s Office quickly retracted the statement and sent a new quote out under the title “reissuing.” It replaced the word war with “combating.” One explanation verbally given to a reporter was that the word had a broad meaning and the intention here was combating.
Did Netanyahu leak a video of Arab leaders talking against Iran?
On day two, after the summit ended, Netanyahu had a closed door briefing with reporters, in which any kind of taping, audio or otherwise was forbidden.
Over a dozen journalists sat in a circle around Netanyahu at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews to hear his summary of the trip.
Netanyahu opened not by listing his accomplishments, but by scolding the reporters for failing to do a good enough job ferreting out scoops. He almost made it sound as if journalists had missed something critical, amid the many headlines they had filed.
Netanyahu spoke in particular about a panel discussion with Arab foreign ministers who he said agreed with Israel’s stance on Iran and held that it had the right to self-defense against such aggression.
After journalists had filed their stories and sat on the dark bus to the hotel, one reporter decided to add video to his reporting. He opened a PMO message to a closed reporters WhatsApp group, which included Pence and Netanyahu’s public comments. At the end was a link, that appeared to be a video of the two leaders speaking.
But when he pressed on it, the link opened to a YouTube video from Netanyahu’s account that showed the closed-door session at the Warsaw summit, in which the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, made statements that backed up Netanyahu’s assertions in the briefing.
The journalists shared his find with the group. Inside the bus, one could almost hear the flurry of fingers hitting the link. After an intense discussion, a common decision was made to publish the material. The PMO removed the YouTube video fairly quickly. Can Netanyahu say that Poles helped Nazis kill Jews?
He can, but very gingerly, at least if he wants to keep Israeli ties with Poland intact. So it was that the most serious apparent faux pas of the trip, but had nothing to do with the summit, Iran or the Arab world.
It had everything to do with the historical existential threat of antisemitism, eastern European Jewish history, the trauma of the Holocaust and the complex Israeli-Polish relationship.
Historically Jews both thrived in Poland and suffered intense antisemitism there, even before World War II.
In the modern world, Poland is one of Israel’s staunchest allies. But its refusal to acknowledge the extent of its citizens’ complicity in Jewish deaths during the Holocaust has often cast a pale light on that relationship.
A new Polish law prohibiting statements broadly holding Poland or Polish individuals responsible for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II created a crisis when it was passed last year.
Israel and Poland have managed to move ahead with the use of diplomatic language that allows for the recognition of past Polish antisemitism and the involvement of Poles in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust, that stops just short of holding the country itself complicit.
It was a line that Netanyahu tried to hold on Thursday in a conversation with reporters, as he pushed back somewhat against the law.
When asked about the issue at a briefing with Israeli reporters Netanyahu said “Poles had cooperated with the Nazis,” and that historical actions of many Poles in that period could not be ignored.
“I am saying it here, there is no argument about this,” Netanyahu said, as he sat in the heart of what had been both Jewish Warsaw and the Jewish Ghetto during World War II. The city, which prior to the war had more than 300,000 Jews, now has less than 10,000. Its distinguished Jewish history is now mostly a memory.
But reporters who published his remarks, relayed them without the same diplomatic nuance, thereby sparking a temporary crisis with Poland.The Jerusalem Post
was one of the first news outlets to report his statements about Poland from the meeting. It caused an uproar when it mistakenly stated in the editing process that Netanyahu had held the Polish nation complicit. The Post, as did many of the reporters who listened to Netanyahu, believed he had spoken of “the Poles,” a phrase that implied the Polish nation even if it didn’t state it explicitly. That point was then drawn out in the paper’s editing process.
The Post, upon learning of the editing error, immediately retracted that line. Other journalists also retracted the phrase “the Poles” when Netanyahu’s spokeswoman played them that section of the tape. Netanyahu’s office has also officially clarified his remarks.
But the diplomatic storm, has less to do with mis-phrasing and much more to do with the sensitivities of two nations, overcoming a difficult past. Poland, which was occupied by the Nazis, still feels keenly the horror of that period and takes seriously any statements that seems to link it with the Nazis.
But while Jews welcome the new Poland, they feel keenly the deep wounds of a thousand-year-old Polish-Jewish history that has been reduced to ghosts, monuments and graveyards. Leaving Warsaw? Not so fast.
The return to Israel at around 2 a.m. should have been easy. Netanyahu and his wife,Sara, had boarded the plane. His staff and journalists were seated. The stewardesses served wine. Some people had already fallen asleep.
But turns out, there was one more twist. The plane was damaged as it went into take-off mode, after a Polish vehicle that was helping drag it back collided with a wheel of the plane.
The collision was not felt on the aircraft. Upon inspection, it was determined that the plane was too heavily damaged to be immediately repaired and El Al dispatched a new plane from Israel.
Netanyahu and his wife returned to Warsaw’s InterContinental hotel, as did much of his security staff. Some of his staff remained on the plane and journalists remained on the plane slightly longer. At around 3 a.m., El Al stewardesses served them a chicken dinner.
Journalists disembarked and were placed at an airport hotel at around 4 a.m.
It was only at 10:30 the next morning that the plane actually took off. Netanyahu and Sara briefly spoke with journalists prior to take off, with Sara assuring them the Netanyahus had been very concerned about their welfare and wanted to be assured that rooms had been found for them.
On Poland, Netanyahu referred journalists to his spokeswoman.
The applause that broke out when the plane landed had never sounded so heartfelt.
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