Israel-Poland crisis: To solve it, we need diplomatic nuance and finesse

'It is really astonishing that the newly appointed foreign minister of Israel quotes such a shameful and racist remark. Utterly unacceptable.'

February 19, 2019 00:25
3 minute read.
Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz attends a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels

Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz attends a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. (photo credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS)


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“The Israeli way is that if something is worth stating, then it is worth overstating,” then Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said at a Jewish media conference in 2014. “We don’t do nuance; we don’t do finesse.”

Newly-minted acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz proved Palmor’s point in spades on Sunday, when – less than 12 hours after taking over as this country’s top diplomat – he laced into the Poles, keeping alive a diplomatic crisis that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unintentionally sparked last Thursday in Warsaw, and putting the kibosh on Poland’s participation in a summit in Jerusalem of four eastern European countries called the Visegrad Group – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

When asked in an interview with i24 and Israel Hayom about the crisis with Poland, Katz began – as any good diplomat would – by trying to downplay its scope. The crisis was triggered by Netanyahu being misquoted in Warsaw as saying “the Poles” collaborated with the Nazis, rather than that “Poles” collaborated with the Nazis.

But then he said this: “I am the child of Holocaust survivors, and like every Israeli and Jew I will not compromise over the memory of the Holocaust. We will not forgive nor forget, and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. How did Yitzhak Shamir put it – they killed his father – ‘the Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk.’ No one will tell us how to express our positions and opinions and how to respect the memory of the fallen. These positions are very clear, and no one among us will compromise on them.”

Then, boom, we were back to square one.

The Poles canceled the participation of their foreign minister in the summit (the Polish prime minister already canceled on Sunday over Netanyahu’s comments), and Poland’s Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski tweeted, “It is really astonishing that the newly appointed foreign minister of Israel quotes such a shameful and racist remark. Utterly unacceptable.”

Which brings us back to Palmor’s comment about overstatement and nuance.

Katz, before making his comments, needed to stop for a moment and ask himself what he hoped to achieve; what were Israel’s goals.

Is the goal to have the Visegrad summit in Israel because it serves Jerusalem’s interest of establishing sub-alliances inside the EU to neutralize anti-Israel resolutions or measures? If so, then the foreign minister has to do what he can to ensure that the conference takes place. Which, by the way, is what Netanyahu did on Friday when he issued a public clarification of his comments about Polish collaboration with the Nazis.

If, however, the goal is to state the naked truth about Polish collaboration with the Nazis from every hilltop at every opportunity – a legitimate and some would say honorable goal – then that is fine. But know that there is a diplomatic price to pay for it, especially with the current right-wing government in Warsaw.

What should not be done, however, is to set one goal, and then take actions that undercut it.

This government set the goal of holding the Visegrad summit in Jerusalem. Some believe that this goal is neither worthy nor one for which historical truth should be sacrificed. But that is the goal this government set – and Katz’s actions undermined it.

The question, however, is whether this needed to be an either/or proposition. Did it have to be either Polish participation in the summit, or historical truth? Might there not have been a third way?
There are all  kinds of different ways to state the truth; one can choose one’s words. It is possible to honor the victims of the Shoah, and still run a foreign policy based on realpolitik.

Rather than saying what he did, Katz could have said the following: “The truth of the matter is that some Poles – and not a few of them – collaborated with the Nazis. On the other hand, we will also never forget those righteous Poles who risked their lives to save Jews.”

This would have been a middle path. This would have been true to history, and also something the Polish government could swallow. They would not have loved it, they would have frowned, but they would not have threatened to cancel their participation in the summit.

But this is something that takes diplomatic nuance and finesse. And, as Palmor said, “We don’t do nuance; we don’t do finesse.”

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