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Between Israel and the Visegrád group: The dance of illiberal democracies

Three Questions to Dominique Moïsi

INTERVIEW - 5 March 2019

At the crossroads of very dense political contexts and a heavy History, the summit bringing together the members of the Visegrád Group in Jerusalem would have had a high symbolic dimension. It ultimately did not take place in the intended format, because of a new diplomatic incident between Israel and Poland after Benyamin Netanyahou’s declaration. How should this new conflict between Poland and Israel be interpreted? What political and strategic issues emerge? Dominique Moïsi, special geopolitical adviser for the Institut Montaigne, answers our questions.

What are the strategic consequences of this new diplomatic incident?

The significant and symbolic diplomatic incident that took place is rooted in a very long history and in immediate domestic political concerns. First of all, a very long history, when one considers the Polish role in the Shoah: if Auschwitz and many other camps were located in Poland, they were managed by Germans and not by Poles. For Poles, Poland as well as Jews were Hitler's victims. In quantitative terms, more than 3 million Polish Jews and three million Poles were killed.

Israel sees the V4 countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) as a leverage to counter European anti-Israeli pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then, there is among Polish people the question of distinction between those who played a role in the Shoah and others. If some Poles have engaged in anti-Semitic acts during this period, they are "some" Poles and not "the" Polish people. Yet, the basis of the incident is there, a confusion about the sentence pronounced by Benyamin Netanyahu and reported by the Israeli media, according to which the Prime Minister said "the" Poles rather than "some" Poles, which he later denied.

Above all, the main question is that Israel sees in the countries of the Visegrád Pact, countries that are more favourable to its position than the majority of European Union countries on the question of the Palestinians. The four countries of the Visegrád Group have positions very close to Israel because they are very close to those of the United States, and they are the countries closest to the United States because they are the ones most frightened by Russia. This is very clear for Poland, a little less so for Slovakia and the Czech Republic, even less so for Hungary. But Israel sees these countries as a leverage to counter European anti-Israeli pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also a way for the V4 (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) to say: "we are good Europeans". Finally, it is a paradox because Israel is getting closer to these countries when they have the highest level of anti-Semitism. All these countries are therefore flirting with illiberal democracy, as if to say: "illiberal democracies, join hands".

Can we expect a quick alleviation of these tensions through the intervention of foreign powers?

Two countries can play a role. The United States, first of all, does not want to see two of its allies fighting, and Warsaw and Jerusalem are both close to the Americans. In fact, the Poles have asked for an American military base in Poland without even consulting the Europeans. Secondly, the Russians, because it is doubtful that they have any interest in these tensions escalating. The Russians, in the end, have and want strong ties with Israel, and Netanyahu visits Moscow more often than Jerusalem.

On the other hand, among Europeans, some - including the V4 - are unconditional allies of Israel, while others are very close to Israel but remain very critical of its government. This is the case of France and Germany, with greater difficulty for the latter given their history.

I do not think that there is, in essence, a real change in France's position. French diplomacy always emphasizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Quai d'Orsay considers that even if it is not at the top of the nations' diplomatic agenda, this issue is essential because nothing can be resolved in the region without it. Israel's security therefore depends on its legitimacy, which in turn depends on its relationship with the Palestinians. This is France's position, and, on another level, the one advocated by the novelist Amos Oz, for whom the key to peace was the existence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

What signals does this incident convey about the domestic political situation in Israel?

We must keep in mind that both countries are approaching election periods: April 9 for Israel, and in the fall for Poland. Both governments are therefore campaigning on this issue and have an interest in rallying their electorate. There are therefore domestic policy calculations. The appeasement or lack of it will depend in part on the Israeli elections.

If Netanyahu wins with a coalition even more to the right than it is today, it will be with the participation, which shocks everyone, including the Americans, of what the Anglo-Saxons call Jewish Power, indirect descendants of the far-right group of Rabbi Kahane killed in 1990. It is not only a religious party, it is a racist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim party, a disgrace to Israeli democracy.

The appeasement or lack of it will depend in part on the Israeli elections.

Why is he doing this? Because he feels threatened, a little like Donald Trump feels threatened in the United States: by judges who risk accusing him of corruption. However, in Israel, this question is no joke. What Benyamin Netanyahu is accused of is subject to prison, as Ehud Olmert's incident reminded us. In front of him is the “White Blue” coalition, and the final result is very difficult to predict. For the time being, Netanyahu is second behind this moderate, rather centre-left vote, which has answers to all the sensible questions, with a charismatic man, Benny Gantz, former Chief of Staff, who has a significant aura and stature. Netanyahu could remain in power with an extreme right-wing coalition larger than the centrists, to which the Arabs would rally. The question is whether Netanyahu's victory will make it easier or not to put pressure on the country. However, if Gantz wins, he will ease tensions. He is already critical of Israeli diplomacy and calls it a blunder that they have ruined the highly symbolic success of a Visegrád summit in Jerusalem.

 

Copyright : Ariel Schalit / POOL / AFP

 

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