'Stop talking so much about Mideast'

Lithuanian FM to EU Sto

lithuanian fm 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
lithuanian fm 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas urged European diplomats this week to "stop talking too much about the Middle East" and said he believes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "wants peace and genuinely wants a Palestinian state." Usackas made his first visit to Israel last week, meeting with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and attending the Foreign Ministry's Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism Conference in Jerusalem. In an interview in Tel Aviv at the end of his four-day visit, Usackas, who represents a member state of both the European Union and NATO, said the EU's role in the peace process should avoid political pressure on the sides, but rather focus on capacity-building and financial assistance toward Palestinian development. This contradicts the views of some EU member states who have sought to use EU forums to create diplomatic pressure on the sides, usually Israel, by attempting to bring the EU to recognize the division of Jerusalem and other measures. "My message that I'm bringing back to my colleagues in EU member states: Stop talking too much about the Middle East," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Let the new EU Foreign Minister Lady Cathy Ashton carry the message... [that] we support in small ways the capacities of the Palestinian Authority, and [will] help to create an environment for future peace talks which only you [Israelis] and the Palestinians can move forward." Following the meetings, which included Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and opposition chairwoman MK Tzipi Livni, Usackas said he believed that the current Israeli government "wants peace," and that Netanyahu "genuinely wants a Palestinian state. Most importantly," he added, "Netanyahu wants Israelis to live in security and peace with their neighbors. It will be up to the citizens and voters of Israel to judge his program and actions, but we trust him." Asked what Europe should do to encourage talks and a resolution to the conflict, Usackas again cautioned against trusting "outsiders" to do the work. "Only Israelis and Palestinians can make peace," he said. Even so, Lithuania "welcomes the Netanyahu [government's] announcement regarding acceptance of the two-state solution, and the temporary [freeze] of settlement [construction] in the West Bank. We'd like to see a full stop of settlements which would enable a return to the negotiating table." Lithuania, before the Holocaust home to one of the most influential and ancient Jewish communities in the world, "has a special relationship with the Jewish world, with Israel," Usackas said, "but we also share the aspirations of the Palestinians to have their own separate state." To that end, Usackas' visit included meetings with senior Palestinian officials, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, marking "the first visit by a Lithuanian official to Palestine." According to Usackas, the visit should be seen as "a not insignificant sign to the people of both Palestine and Israel that Lithuania is not indifferent." The interview also dealt with Lithuania's past, and present-day complaints over the politically charged comparisons being made by academics and governments in eastern Europe between the Nazi genocide of World War II and Stalinist oppression. Lithuania has been excoriated in Israel over such comparisons, with some Israeli Holocaust scholars saying that the equating of Nazism with the Soviet occupation was meant to minimize the crimes of the Nazis and the collaboration by many Lithuanians in the Holocaust. Over 95 percent of Lithuania's Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, many at the hands of Lithuanians. But Lithuania has not shied away from this past, Usackas argued. "Lithuania is coping with the past, with the horrors of the Holocaust, in a transparent, open and genuine way. If you look back at the history of the last 20 years, at what the government has been doing in educating [about the] biggest and most horrible chapter in our history, you'll see Lithuania is dealing with the past." Among such measures are Lithuania's adoption of a Holocaust Memorial Day, the inclusion of Holocaust education in school textbooks and the introduction into the education system of a special teacher-training program that enabled 1,500 teachers to bring Holocaust studies into their schools. Indeed, "the comprehensive assessment and evaluation of the Holocaust" is a model for what Lithuania wishes to do with its communist past, explained Usackas. "I want to emphasize: We are not making a moral equivalence, of course, but we want a similar process of assessment. "We know from our own history that by going through the painful pages of history, which were unpleasant, horrible, shameful, my nation became stronger. We know the truth about what happened during the Second World War, and we know the facts of collaboration of some of our citizens with the Nazi killing of the Jews, and this is a shame for which we ask forgiveness." In a similar way, "it is very important for us, and maybe even more so for the Russians, to make an assessment and genuinely evaluate the crimes" of the Soviet era. "Stalinism, which has produced so much pain and crimes, has not been addressed properly. This is important because by dealing consciously with [Soviet-era] crimes, we will help countries such as Russia to recognize that Russians are not Soviets. They suffered from Stalinism as much, and even more, than anyone else." Returning to Holocaust remembrance, Usackas insisted Lithuania wished to restore some of its past glory as the seat of Jewish intellectual achievement. "We wish to remind people that we had a long-cherished and very close relationship with the Jewish people. In Lithuania, there is a new generation that wants to stand atop the ashes, forgiving but not forgetting the collaboration of some Lithuanians in the Holocaust, and extending an invitation to help us to rebuild the spirit of the 'Jerusalem of the North,'" - a reference to the Vilnius Jewish community and its once-famed yeshivot and rabbis. "We want [the Jewish world] to help us to rebuild the legacy of [18th century legalist and Kabbalist] the Vilna Gaon, to help the 7,000-strong Lithuanian Jewish community to flourish, and to develop close cultural, economic and political relationship with Jews around the world and particularly with the State of Israel."