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    With Ashkenazi as FM, Israel and Poland can now hit ‘reset’

    By initiating the call with Czaputowicz, Ashkenazi showed that he was no Israel Katz.

    Israel's new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

    Israel’s new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi

    (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

    New Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has held some 15 phone conversations with his counterparts abroad since taking office three weeks ago. The Foreign Ministry issued a readout of the calls with four of them: the foreign ministers of Russia, Germany, Hungary and Poland.

    The reason for the readout of the call with the representatives of Russia and Germany is obvious: those are two very important countries on the world stage. The readout of the call with the Foreign Minister of Hungary was essential to correct a mistaken impression the Hungarian diplomat left in his readout of the call.

    And then there was Tuesday evening’s communiqué following the call with Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz.

    The carefully worded statement said the “two discussed the promotion of bilateral relations between the countries. Foreign Minister Ashkenazi added that he sees great potential in collaborations in the fields of economics, culture, science and in the fight against the coronavirus and other areas. He noted Poland’s important role as part of the ‘Warsaw Forum’ that deals with issues of security and stability in the Middle East, with an emphasis on curbing the Iranian nuclear program. The two agreed to meet as soon as the situation allowed.”

    Poland’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement of its own that was similar to the Israeli one, but added two new elements. First, it said Israel initiated the conversation, and second, it said Ashkenazi thanked Poland for its “contribution to international efforts to stabilize the region, including the return of the Polish contingent to the UNIFIL mission in south Lebanon.”

    Why was this call important, and why did it merit being flagged by both foreign ministries?

    Because it was a signal that Israel and Poland – whose once close ties were badly strained over the last two years by Holocaust-related issues – were interested in turning a new page in their relationship, and the appointment of a new foreign minister in Israel afforded a perfect opportunity to do that.

    By initiating the call with Czaputowicz, Ashkenazi showed he was no Israel Katz. For it was Ashkenazi’s predecessor Katz who – less than 12 hours after taking over as the country’s foreign minister in February 2019 – compounded an already difficult diplomatic situation with Warsaw by saying the Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk.

    Katz’s words came during an interview that took place just days after a diplomatic crisis with Poland erupted when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was misquoted during a visit to Warsaw as saying “the Poles” collaborated with the Nazis, rather than that “Poles” collaborated with the Nazis. This reignited a crisis from the year before over Poland’s intention to make it illegal to attribute complicity in the Holocaust to the “Polish nation” or to use terms such as “Polish death camps.”

    Asked about the crisis, Katz replied: “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.”

    Those words, obviously, did not go over well in Warsaw, which immediately withdrew its participation in an unusual summit in Jerusalem of the Visegrad Group countries: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – a key sub-alliance inside the EU that Netanyahu was working hard to cultivate.

    The Poles waited for an apology from Katz, but – because it was in the midst of an election season, and apologizing to Poland is not something that would go over well with the electorate – no apology was forthcoming. And then there was another election, and yet another, and ties between the two countries never recovered.

    Until now. Ashkenazi recognized an opportunity to try to normalize relations with Poland – not an insignificant country for Israel in the EU – and jumped in.

    The Foreign Ministry statement of the call was crafted carefully, and intentionally made no mention about the Holocaust-related issues, as if to say that the two countries have differences that will not be papered over, but that they also have joint interests they do not want to sacrifice.

    Despite the diplomatic tension between Israel and Poland over the last two years, Warsaw did not suddenly change its attitude toward Israel when it came to the Palestinian and Iranian issues.

    With the exception of Czech Republic, the former Warsaw Pact countries now in the EU are considered Israel’s strongest backers in the EU, and Poland did not change its voting pattern toward Israel in international forums – from neutral-supportive to negative – as a result of the crisis; nor is it expected to significantly alter its position now that there is a new Israeli foreign minister. While Poland never reached the pro-Israel level of a Hungary or Czech Republic inside the EU, it did not – despite the crisis – devolve on the other side of the spectrum into one of the least friendly states, such as Ireland, Sweden and Belgium.

    The Ashkenazi outreach shows that Jerusalem realizes Poland is a large and significant country in Central Europe, and one with whom Israel wants to resume normal ties – despite the differences.

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