Israel: Netanyahu’s flirtation with the far right

Domunique Vidal.

As the extreme right continues its rise across Europe, Israel’s prime minister has decided to get closer. This decision, in the name of the fight against Islamism, means turning a blind eye to his new friends’ antisemitism.

It began on 19 December 2010 when a delegation of some 30 leaders of the European Alliance for Freedom arrived in Tel Aviv. In case you are wondering, this organisation comprises a series of parties belonging to the radical right. It was the first time since the creation of Israel that the country had played host to such a sinister gathering, which included Geert Wilders from the Netherlands, Philip Dewinter from Belgium and Jorg Haider’s successor, Heinz-Christian Strache, from Austria.

What were all these neo-fascists, some of them holocaust deniers or people nostalgic for the Third Reich, doing in Israel? They’d come to take part in a conference organised by the right wing of the Likud party, which is devoted to the war on terrorism. Despite the unofficial nature of the initiative, the ultra-nationalist minister Avigdor Lieberman had a long talk with the rabidly Islamophobic Wilders, who returned the courtesy by haranguing West Bank settlers. According to Agence France Presse, Wilders, who would like to ban the Koran in the Netherlands, ‘argued against giving back land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace and proposed instead the ‘voluntary’ establishment of the Palestinians in Jordan,’ and defended the Jewish West Bank settlements as ‘little bastions of freedom, defying those ideological forces which deny not only Israel but the whole western world, the right to live in peace, dignity and freedom.’

This says it all. In their ‘crusade’ against the Palestinians, the Israeli right and far right are prepared to form any alliance, however unholy. That first step, taken in 2010, was followed by many others. So today the flirtation which Netanyahu and his allies and rivals have carried on with every rightwing populist party in Europe has come to look like an enduring passion. Even when the dark objects of their desire scarcely conceal their antisemitism. These dangerous connections deserve to be better known, especially when many media, including in France, find them too embarrassing to mention.

Viktor Orban’s doublespeak

On 16 July 2017, Netanyahu listened ecstatically to Emmanuel Macron declaring at the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup: ‘We will never give in to anti-Zionism because it is a revamped version of antisemitism.’ But many do not know where he was the following day – in Budapest, paying tribute to his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban. And yet Orban, only a few weeks before, had qualified one Miklos Horthy of Nagybanya as ‘an exceptional statesman.’ Horthy, regent from 1920, wound up collaborating with the Nazis, enacting several antisemitic laws and ultimately turning some 430,000 Hungarian Jews over to Adolf Eichman, while pretending to oppose their deportation. Most were gassed as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz.

This glorification of a man guilty of crimes against humanity didn’t stop the Hungarian leader, on a visit to Jerusalem in July 2018, from promising his host ‘a policy of zero tolerance for antisemitism’. Orban is a master cynic. Three months earlier, he had won a parliamentary election with a campaign centred on denouncing the millionaire philanthropist George Soros, whom he accused of ‘conspiring’ to settle a million refugees per year in the European Union. According to the prime minister, the plot was the fruit of the ‘cosmopolitan’ mentality of a Jewish financier naturally subservient to the ‘moneyed interests’ of Brussels and Washington.

This barely concealed antisemitism isn’t the only feature shared by Budapest and Warsaw: in both capitals conservatives are proud of what Etienne Balibar has dubbed their ‘illiberalism’. Nationalism and protectionism go hand in hand with Euroscepticism and rightwing Catholicism. In Poland too, the Party of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PIS), founded by the Kaczynski brothers, has, since its return to power in 2015, been relentlessly doing away with the few democratic social and political advances in post-communist Poland: the powers of the executive have been increased, to the detriment of parliament, as has government control of the media and the judicial system; anti-abortion laws have been made more restrictive, gay marriage and euthanasia have been rejected and the restoration of the death penalty will be submitted to referendum.

Yet none of this has stopped Israel’s leaders getting into bed with their Polish counterparts. Even when Poland came up with a law making it a crime to criticise collaboration with the Third Reich – at the risk of reinvigorating (already deeply rooted) antisemitism. This draft law calls for three years imprisonment for anyone guilty of ‘claiming publicly and in spite of the facts, that the Polish State or Nation was responsible or shared responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich … for war crimes or other crimes against peace and humanity.’

A cosmetic modification of the law was enough for Netanyahu to exonerate Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, in a joint declaration described by Yehuda Bauer, one of the major Israeli historians of the Holocaust, as a ‘stupid, ignorant and immoral betrayal of historical fact regarding the Polish involvement in the Holocaust.’ In substance, his indictment accused the joint declaration of presenting the Poles as heroes or victims, and minimising their massive participation in antisemitic crimes.

The Israeli prime minister’s irresponsible betrayal inevitably had bad consequences for Polish Jews: with the new law, it fuelled the ‘public expression of antisemitism as never before since 1989’ in the words of Le Monde’s foreign correspondent, based on worrisome observations: media lapses, newspaper caricatures, Internet rants, ministerial pressures on the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, hate campaigns against the directors of the Aushchwitz-Birkenau Museum and the Centre for Research on Prejudice. The latter declared: ‘There is clearly an epidemic of public hate speech in Poland. It began with the migration crisis in 2015. Since then antisemitic rhetoric has increased enormously along with anti-Muslim feeling and xenophobia.’

The Lithuania deal

The case of Lithuania is even more painful than Poland: the Jewish population exterminated during the war is estimated (according to different sources) at between 95% and 97%. Most of them were killed in 1941, often by units of Lithuanian collaborators — some even before the arrival of the Nazi death squads (Einsatzgruppen).

Netanyahu cannot fail to be aware of these facts: his family left Lithuania just before the genocide. Yet during a visit to Vilnius in August 2018, he praised the ‘efforts’ of his counterpart, Saulius Skvernelis, with regard to the commemoration of the Shoah. ‘There was no Israeli reaction to these falsifications of the Shoah,’ argued Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. ‘There was nothing. Nada. Gornisht. The Lithuanians can say anything they like, they can glorify people who murdered Jews.’ So long as they act as advocates for Israel within the EU.

So that’s the deal. Indeed, Netanyahu admitted as much before he flew to Vilnius: ‘I hope to achieve a better balance in our relations with the European Union, which does not always have a friendly attitude towards Israel.’ And he spelled out how he intended to proceed: ‘I will do this through my contact with various blocks of countries within the Union, countries in Eastern Europe and now with the Baltic countries and others, of course.’ The object is to counter Israel’s diplomatic isolation. For in the view of many – though not Donald Trump – the Israeli government’s radicalisation is making it embarrassing to deal with.

The Viségrad Group is at the heart of this strategy now that it is run by rightwing populists (in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) or leftwing populists (in Slovakia). Israel is counting on them to change Brussels’s policies in the Middle-East, which are already very timid.

Tel Aviv is also casting its net westwards. The more headway the neo-fascists make, the more they interest Israel. The leader of the Italian Liga was enthusiastic after his trip to Israel in 2016; and two years later, on the eve of the election which brought him to power, he declared: ’I have great esteem and deep respect for Israel’s powers of resilience in such a difficult part of the world.’ And he said that if he were elected, he would modify Italy’s policies towards Israel in international bodies, and reconsider Italy’s financial contribution to bodies like Unesco ’which like to attack it.’

Even Oscar Freysinger of the Swiss hard right, behind the November 2009 referendum to ban the construction of minarets, had a lyrical outburst: ‘Were Israel to disappear, we would lose our avant-garde … So long as the Muslims concentrate on Israel, our own struggle is made easier. But the day Israel disappears, they will come and conquer the West.’

In Germany, the electoral advances of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) provoked contradictory reactions in Tel Aviv. While party president Beatrix von Storch never misses a chance to declare her support for Israel in the common struggle against Islamism, other leaders make more provocative statements, putting a damper on possible dialogue. Alexander Gauland, one of the AfD’s two spokesmen, explained that Germans can be ‘proud’ of their soldiers during WW2, regretting the way the Federal Republic ‘perceives its role in the Holocaust and its special relationship with Israel.’

Rafi Eitan, a former Israeli minister and head of Mossad, famous for Eichmann’s capture, had no qualms about praising the AfD: ‘All of us in Israel appreciate your attitude towards Judaism,’ he said. ‘I’m certain that with hard work and, more importantly, with realism, you could represent not ‘an alternative for Germany’ but an alternative for all of Europe.’

Only the French Rassemblement National (RN, ex-Front National) remains persona non grata in Israel, despite the fact that Marine Le Pen’s companion lived there for a time. As Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, recently put it: ‘The Israeli government has no contact with the Front National, in view of that party’s history and ideology.’

On the other hand, the question of Israel’s relations with the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) has been raised behind the scenes: a Likud MP, the ultra-nationalist Yehuda Click, even paid a visit to the party, which came close to winning the last presidential election, and urged his colleagues to enter into dialogue with it.

Without compromising itself officially with Jorg Haider’s Austrian successors, Israel issued an invitation to the new Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who heads a coalition that includes the neo-Nazis. Kurz visited Yad Vashem and declared: ‘As chancellor of Austria, I admit that Austria and the Austrians have a heavy burden to bear … We Austrians know that we are responsible for our own history.’ This blatant lie caused an incident with his own guide, Debora Hartmann, herself Jewish and of Austrian origin. She told Kurz in front of the TV cameras that the FPÖ still had politicians ‘who need to have the Shoah explained to them.’ Apologies were in order. But guess who had to apologise? The Yad Vashem Memorial. For as soon as Kurz took office as chancellor in December, he announced that ‘part of his programme was [his wish] to strengthen bilateral relations with Israel.’ These good intentions – which we know pave the road to hell – earned him Netanyahu’s assurance that he was a ‘true friend of Israel and the Jewish people’.

The guiding principle of Netanyahu’s ostentatious seduction campaign among rightwing populist and neo-fascist circles in Europe is ‘their antisemitism doesn’t matter so long as they are Zionists’. All this cannot be dismissed as just realpolitik: it is part of Netanyahu’s personal and political DNA. Personal, because his father, Benzion Netanyahu, had always been close to Zeev Jabotinsky, leader of rightwing revisionist Zionism, and was in fact his assistant. Political, because the precursors of Likud — the Irgun, Betar and Lehi (‘Stern Gang’) – were already involved with fascism and Nazism. With much-publicised reminders of the deeds of the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, who had travelled (alone) to Berlin and created two (Bosniac) SS legions there, it’s easy to forget that the Lehi itself offered to ally itself with the Third Reich in 1941. And that the Betar, then the Irgun, in the early 1920s, had the political support of Benito Mussolini, who admired Jabotinsky: ‘In order for Zionism to achieve its goal,’ said il Duce, ‘you’ll need a Jewish state with a Jewish flag and a Jewish language. And the person who understands that best is your fascist, Jabotinsky.’

From Le Monde Diplomatique October 12, 2018.

Dominique Vidal is a journalist and historian, and author most recently of Anti-Zionism=anti-Semitism? (Libertalia, February 2018). This article was first published by Orient XXI on 2 October 2018, translated from French by Noël Burch.
Feature image:Haim Zach/GPO

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