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Israel’s Auschwitz Ceremony Divides U.S. Allies

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Israel, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp will be marked by somber speeches, moments of silence, the attendance of many world leaders and the notable absence of one: Polish President Andrzej Duda.

His absence at the Jan. 23 commemoration is more than just a diplomatic oversight. It has angered senior members of President Donald Trump’s administration and widened a rift between Poland and Israel. U.S. officials tell me that they fear the event itself will be seen as a victory for the Kremlin, which in recent years has sought to push propaganda that portrays Poland as the instigator of World War II instead of one of its first victims.

The controversy began when Israel President Reuven Rivlin declined to give Duda a seven-minute slot to deliver a speech with other world leaders at the event, which will also include Russian President Vladimir Putin. Polish governments have traditionally marked the liberation of Auschwitz with proper respect for its Jewish victims. Duda himself has participated in such commemorations in Poland.

After Rivlin rebuffed Duda, U.S. officials intervened. They included the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Tom Rose, a senior adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, who will be also be attending the ceremony.

The U.S. is “very disappointed by what we view as a preventable and unnecessary snub by one strong American ally of another strong American ally,” Rose told me. It is “very difficult to criticize” Duda’s decision not to attend, he said. “This has been a difficult few years in the Polish-Israeli relationship and it is doubly regrettable that the one person who has worked harder than anyone else to rectify the split is the one who is publicly snubbed by the president of the state of Israel.”

Rose is referring to a recent dispute between Israel and Poland over Jewish property belonging to families of Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Last year, Poland’s prime minister rejected legislation aimed at providing the families restitution for its lost property, arguing that for Poland to pay for Hitler’s crimes would amount to a posthumous victory for Nazi Germany.

Duda has defended that position, arguing that Poland should not be forced to pay for the crimes committed by occupying forces in World War II. At the same time, he has gone out of his way to acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust, recently telling an Israeli newspaper that he considers the true Polish national tradition to include both the Jews who perished and the brave partisans who fought the Nazis after their 1939 invasion.

But the disagreement is about more than the meaning and memory of the Holocaust. For the U.S., there are wider strategic implications.

First there is Iran: Since 2017, the Trump administration has been trying to get Eastern European countries, and Poland in particular, to join its campaign of maximum pressure against Iran. The idea is to take on France and Germany, which have sought to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, within the European Union. Poland’s snub makes that diplomacy more difficult.

Then there is the Russia angle. Poland’s ambassador to the U.S., Piotr Wilczek, told me his country was “disappointed by what we feel is a possible Russian influence on the shape of this event.” The background: The commemoration in Israel, called the World Holocaust Forum, is being sponsored by the European Jewish Congress, an organization funded by a prominent Russian oligarch and ally of Putin named Moshe Kantor.

Putin himself has increasingly sought to emphasize the role the Red Army played in liberating Auschwitz, while covering up the treacherous pact that Stalin signed with Hitler in 1939, when the Soviet Union and Germany were temporarily aligned in their invasion of Poland. As recently as December, Putin claimed that Poland’s ambassador to Germany before World War II proposed expelling Poland’s Jews to Africa. This prompted a blistering response from the Polish prime minister. For Wilczek, it’s a travesty that Putin will be speaking at the Auschwitz commemoration but Duda will not.

For now, the event puts Israel in a precarious position. Israel has negotiated an arrangement with Russia in Syria, where its jets are given permission to bomb Iranian positions when intelligence indicates they are moving advanced weapons to Hezbollah militias close to its borders. At the same time, Israel has an interest in seeing the U.S. campaign against Iran succeed with allies such as Poland.

For this commemoration of Auschwitz, Israel chose Russia over America and Poland. That may be a wise short-term bet, but it’s not a decision that is in Israel’s long-term interests.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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