From Poles apart to best friends

Israeli and Polish diplomats met at a conference in Jerusalem marking the 20th anniversary of the renewal of bilateral relations.

Poland, which during the Communist era reviled Israel and the Jews, is now one of the country’s best friends in Europe. Israeli and Polish diplomats were in accord over the warmth of the relationship at an intensive oneand- a-half day conference in Jerusalem this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the renewal of bilateral relations, after breaking off ties in 1967.
The conference was cosponsored by The Polish Institute of International Affairs and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
While some speakers wanted to focus on the diplomatic process and its development, others said that the relationship between Poland and Israel was unique because it had been preceded by an almost one-thousand-year symbiosis between Poles and Jews, and because, in a sense, the State of Israel was an extension of that relationship.
Speakers touting the warm relationship between the two countries noted that many of Israel’s founders had been born in Poland and that more than half of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence were Polish-born, as were 61 of the 120 member of the first Knesset.
They also pointed out that, as a result of this historic connection, Israel’s political system was based on that of Poland.
Israelis of Polish birth were also a significant factor in Israel’s diplomatic corps.
In one session chaired by Laurence Weinbaum, the executive director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, the panel included two Polish-born Israeli ambassadors to Poland and one Polish-born journalist who represented Israel at international forums and who for the past year, after more than half a century in Israel, was back in Poland working as the Middle East editor of the weekly magazine Polityka and as the Haaretz correspondent in Warsaw.
Weinbaum, though not born in Poland, was educated there, and maintains strong ties with the country.
Both Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak- Miszewska and Israel Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner emphasized the high level of bilateral relations by referring to the upcoming intergovernmental meeting to be held in Jerusalem toward the end of the year. It is a rarity in the case of each country to hold dialogues of this nature with bilateral partners. According to Magdziak-Miszewska, the meeting is the outcome of a Polish decision in January to upgrade relations to the highest possible level.
Much of the conference was devoted to the Middle East peace process and the role that Poland can play when it assumes the presidency of the European Union on July 1, 2011.
Maciej Kozlowski, a former Polish ambassador to Israel, who is currently deputy director of the Middle East and Africa department of the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that it was Poland’s foreign policy to present as balanced a view as possible of the Middle East to the EU.
“We try to get our partners in the EU to look at the whole situation and not to jump to conclusions without looking at all the circumstances,” he said. Poland was particularly active, he added, in fighting the demonization of Israel.
Rav-Ner went even further, declaring that Poland supports Israel on every Israelrelated issue raised by the European Union as well as in other forums such as the United Nations.
Rav-Ner also listed various fields of bilateral cooperation and exchange in areas such as defense, culture, economics and sports.
David Peleg, a former Israel Ambassador to Poland who is now director-general of the World Jewish Restitution Organization recalled that in the years preceding Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004, there was a debate within Israel’s Foreign Ministry as to how the entry of new member states would affect the EU. Some believed that new members would do and vote as guided, suggested and instructed by large European countries, he said.
Others disagreed and thought it best to cultivate ties with Central European countries so that they would in turn influence other European countries on issues vital to Israel. The latter school of opinion became policy, and from 2001 onwards, Israel put more emphasis on relations with new EU member states.
Peleg paid tribute to the ambassadors of these countries, especially Kozlowski who had helped in this task.
Israeli policy makers know of the importance of Poland and other Central European countries, specifically the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, said Peleg. This is reflected by high-level Israeli visits to those countries, such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Poland earlier this year.
“The most sympathetic attitudes to Israel in the EU are those of Central European countries,” he said.
As far as Poland is concerned, its attitude is not only friendly, said Peleg, but its ministers are personally and actively involved on Israel’s behalf.
Obviously aware that Israelis are under the impression that solutions to the Middle East conflict are high on the global agenda, Likasz Kulesa, the acting head of the Research Office of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said “the Middle East is not on the list of priorities of the Polish presidency,” but conceded that developments on the ground might induce more attention to the region.
What was most important with regard to the EU, he said, was that it “shouldn’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. We shouldn’t try to dictate conditions of agreement from the safe corridors of Brussels. We should try to prevent crises and give the two sides space for compromise.”