Nationalism is a supremely powerful force in politics, but it’s perennially difficult to forge lasting alliances between competing nationalisms – as this week’s news demonstrates yet again.
No country has benefited more from the growing split between Brussels and the European Union’s formerly Communist member states than Israel. In Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found receptive European audiences, which Israel needed as the EU has soured on Israel’s occupation policies towards the Palestinians and increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards Iran. Netanyahu invested in these new relationships, which were based in more than mere convenience.
The Visegrád Four, as they call themselves, made natural allies for Likud-run Israel. Poland, Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia all have right-wing governments which value ethno-nationalism and the preservation of the nation, while disdaining liberal multiculturalism and fearing Islam and migration – all the while not caring one whit what Brussels thinks. In other words, they’re a lot like Netanyahu’s Israel.
Israel’s prime minister scored a diplomatic coup by getting the Visegrád Four, which holds an annual summit, to schedule their next meeting in Jerusalem. It’s the group’s first meeting outside Central Europe since they first got together after Communism’s fall. This was a clear endorsement of the growing alliance between Israel and Central Europe, not to mention a vote for Netanyahu’s position that Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is Israel’s ‘eternal capital’ – which is unpopular in Brussels.
However, it all fell apart this week, on the eve of the Visegrád Four summit, with a high degree of needless diplomatic drama. Netanyahu’s problem is Poland – perhaps fittingly, since the prime minister’s father was born in Warsaw when it was under tsarist occupation. While Bibi has a cozy relationship with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, grounded in shared values and a mutual loathing for George Soros, the Budapest-born liberal billionaire lion, relations between Israel and Poland are always tricky.
Warsaw today is governed by a right-wing nationalist party that’s immersed in Polish victimology in a manner very similar to how Likud views the Holocaust. For Polish nationalists, their country’s suffering in the 20th century, crushed between Nazis and Soviets, is without precedent, indeed Christ-like, and justifies present-day skepticism regarding Germany, Russia, and Brussels too.
They are significantly touchy about citations of ‘Polish death camps’ during World War Two, and Warsaw never fails to correct anyone – it happens more than Westerners realize – who neglects to mention that Nazi death camps, while located on occupied Polish soil, were run by Germans, and many of their victims were Poles.
In contrast, many Jews find Polish victimology suspect and consider that the execution of so much of the Holocaust on Polish soil was no mere accident. Poles retort that no other country has so many nationals listed in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous among Nations for saving Jews from the Nazis. Real history is seldom reducible to pleasing soundbites, especially in Central Europe.
For no reason that seems sane, Bibi decided to open this nasty can of worms last week when he was in Warsaw for the US-hosted security conference designed to rally support for a tougher line – perhaps including war – against Iran. What stole local press attention, however, was Netanyahu’s statement to reporters, ‘Poles cooperated with the Nazis’.
This hardly endeared Bibi to his hosts, and Polish nationalists were up in arms (it doesn’t help that the Polish language lacks the definite article, making the English language distinction between ‘Poles’ and ‘the Poles’ meaningless). Netanyahu’s handlers explained he was misquoted and Warsaw summoned Israel’s ambassador for discussions late last week. That might have patched things up yet did not.
Back home, Netanyahu’s effort to calm the Poles down was met with derision by right-wingers who felt that Bibi had treated his hosts too delicately. On Sunday, Yisrael Katz, a Likudnik member of Netanyahu’s cabinet and the acting foreign minister, pushed the matter off a cliff by making his position admirably clear: ‘Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely,’ adding a line by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who wasn’t shy about his disdain for Poles, who ‘said that from his point of view they suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.’
There was no recovery from that, and Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, responded by pulling his country out of this week’s Visegrád Four summit in Jerusalem, collapsing the event, while denouncing Katz’s comments as ‘an example of racist anti-Polonism’ and ‘absolutely unacceptable.’ Polish Jews were offended too, with the country’s chief rabbi explaining that Katz ‘functionally said that all Poles are anti-Semites. So how do you expect the Poles to react?’ America’s ambassador to Warsaw has likewise condemned Katz’s remarks as ‘unacceptable.’
In a matter of days, Likud sank Israel’s burgeoning strategic alliance with Central Europe, for no apparent reason except a desire to placate bumptious nationalists back home. While Bibi will still find a warm welcome in Budapest, nobody in Warsaw wants to see him again anytime soon. Given Poland’s status as the dominant player in Central Europe politically, economically, and militarily, this means that Israel’s outreach to the region as a counterweight to the EU is officially dead.
This strange saga demonstrates not just the enduring power of ethno-nationalism and emotionally weighted political mythology, but also the difficulty of forming durable alliances out of nationalists from different countries. When competing nationalisms collide, the political consequences can spiral out of control rapidly. Steve Bannon, call your office.