A key summit of central European leaders has been cancelled after a row erupted between Poland’s prime minister and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu when he accused the Poles of cooperating with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that instead of the Visegrad summit taking place in full, Mr Netanyahu would host bilateral meetings with the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian leaders. It is a blow to the Israeli premier who is looking to shore up support abroad as he faces possible indictment on corruption charges and a snap election in April.
“There will be no full V4 meeting,” Mr Nahshon said, using a term to describe the right-wing central European bloc.
“Three PM’s are arriving and will hold meetings with [Israel’s] PM.”
Mr Netanyahu was due to meet the leaders of the four central European countries known as the Visegrad Group – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – this week during the two-day summit.
However, Polish leader Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Monday he was pulling out of the summit, and sending his country’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, instead, after controversial remarks made by Israel’s prime minister during a speech at a Middle East conference in Warsaw last week.
Mr Netanyahu had said “Poles cooperated with the Nazis”, seemingly a statement that some Poles had taken part in the killing of Jews during German occupation.
Israel’s acting foreign minister, Israel Katz, exacerbated the dispute on Monday when he told Israel’s Army Radio: “Many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and took part in the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust.”
Mr Morawiecki branded the remarks “racist and unacceptable”.
The Israeli leader was initially quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying “the Poles”, which suggested he was blaming the entire Polish nation.
Both Mr Netanyahu’s office and the newspaper later clarified he had been misquoted due to an editing error.
The Polish government summoned the Israeli ambassador on Friday and later said it was not satisfied with the explanation.
Tomasz Lis, editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek and a government critic, accused Mr Morawiecki of snubbing the conference because he “has to think about the far-right and antisemitic electorate” with a general election due this year.
This is not the first time Poland and Israel have clashed over the Holocaust.
Last year, Mr Netanyahu described comments by Mr Morawiecki that Jews were among the perpetrators of the genocide as “outrageous”.
The Polish leader’s remarks came after his country introduced a law making it illegal to claim Poland bears some responsibility for the crimes of Nazi Germany.
Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it and directly governing the rest.
Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, Poland did not have a collaborationist government at the time. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile and an underground resistance army fought the Nazis inside the country.
Because of that history, Poles find references to Polish “collaboration” to be unfair and hurtful.
However, individual Poles did take part in killing Jews during and after the war, and many Holocaust survivors and their relatives carry painful memories of persecution at Polish hands.
In Israel, there has been anger at what many there perceive to be Polish attempts today to whitewash that history.
The dispute last year sparked an explosion of antisemitic hate speech in Poland, and there were signs of another spike in recent days.
“The worst of all is that a man cannot even hate Jews in response, because he knows that this is what the sons of b****es are going for”, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, a prominent host on public broadcaster TVP, tweeted on Saturday.
Meanwhile, in the western city of Wroclaw, the words “Jezus jest Krolem”, which translates as “Jesus is King”, were spray-painted on an exterior wall of a Jewish cemetery.
Additional reporting by AP
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