Benyamin Netanyahu’s Dangerous Connections with the European Far Right

Europe is experiencing a rise of the extreme right, which is even taking power, from Austria to Poland. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has decided to get closer to these movements, in the name of the fight against Islamism, even if it means turning a blind eye to their anti-Semitism.

Working session between Sebastian Kurz and Benyamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, 16 May 2015.

It all began on 19 December 2010 when a sizeable delegation arrived in Tel Aviv, consisting of some thirty leaders of the European Alliance for Freedom. As its name fails to indicate, this was an organisation comprised of 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 are all these neo-fascists, some of them holocaust negationists or Third Reich nostalgics, doing in Israel? They’d come to take part in a conference organised by the right wing of the Likoud party devoted to the war on terrorism. Despite the unofficial nature of this initiative, the ultra-nationalist Minister Avigdor Liberman had a long talk with the rabidly Islamophobic Wilders who returned the courtesy by going to harangue West Bank settlers. According to the Agence France Presse (AFP), the man 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 colonies 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 eight years ago was followed by many others. So that today the flirtation which Benyamin Netanyahu and his allies and rivals have carried on with every right-wing 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 considering that many media, including in France, find them too embarrassing to mention.

The Double Language of Viktor Orban

Most observers know what the Israeli Premier was doing on 16 July 2017: he was listening ecstatically to Emmanuel Macron declaring at the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup1: “We will never give in to anti-Zionism because it is a revamped version of antisemitism.” On the other hand, many do not know where he was the following day: in Budapest, paying tribute to his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban.

And yet the latter, only a few weeks before, had qualified one Miklos Horthy of Nagybanya, as “an exceptional statesman.” Regent of the realm since 1920, Horthy wound up collaborating with the Nazis, enacting several anti-Semitic laws and ultimately turning some 430,000 Hungarian Jews over to Adolf Eichman while feigning to oppose their deportation. Most of them were gassed as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz.

This glorification of a man guilty of crimes against humanity did not prevent 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 a denunciation of 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, this plot was the fruit of the “cosmopolitan” mentality of a Jewish financier naturally subservient to the “moneyed interests” of Brussels and Washington.

Liberation of Anti-Semitic Speech in Poland

This barely concealed antisemitism is not the only common feature shared by Budapest and Warsaw: in both capitals the conservatives are proud of what Etienne Balibar has dubbed their “illiberalism.” Nationalism and protectionism go hand in hand with Euroscepticism and right-wing Catholicism. And on the banks of the Vistula as well, the Party of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PIS), founded by the Kaczynski brothers, since its return to power in 2015, has been relentlessly doing away with the handful of democratic social and political advances achieved 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, the restoration of the death penalty will be submitted to referendum, etc.

Yet none of this prevents the rulers of Israel from getting into bed with the rulers of Poland. Even when the latter, at the risk of reinvigorating the antisemitism so deeply rooted in their country, come up with a law making it a crime to criticise collaboration with the Third Reich. This draft law calls for a term of three years in prison 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 his counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki in a joint declaration, which Yehuda Bauer, one of the major Israeli historians of the Shoah described 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 anti-semitic crimes.2

The Israeli Prime Minister’s irresponsible betrayal inevitably had baneful consequences for Polish Jews: together with the new law, it fuelled the “public expression of antisemitism as never before since 1989.” This was the opinion of the Warsaw correspondent for Le Monde, based on a series of 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 Center for Research on Prejudice. The latter has declared: “There is clearly an epidemic of public hate speech in Poland. It began with the migration crisis in 2015. Since then anti-Semitic rhetoric has increased enormously along with anti-Muslim feeling and xenophobia.”

Dealing with European Revisionists

The case of Lithuania is even more painful than that of Poland: the percentage of the Jewish population exterminated during the war is estimated according to different sources as between 95 and 97%. Most of them were killed in 1941, often by units of Lithuanian collaborators — some even before the arrival of the Einsatzgruppen (or Nazi death squads). Netanyahu cannot fail to be aware of these facts: his family left Lithuania just before the genocide. And yet, during his visit to Vilnius, at the end of 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 Center in Los Angeles. “There was nothing. Nada. Gornisht [nothing in Yiddish]. The Lithuanians can say anything they like, they can glorify people who murdered Jews.” So long, it must be added, as they act as advocates for Tel Aviv within the European Union.

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 the diplomatic isolation of the State of Israel: in the view of many — except for Donald Trump—its 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 right-wing populists (in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) or left-wing populists (Slovakia). Israel is counting on them to change Brussels’s policies in the Middle-Eat, which are already very timid.

Enthusiastic Neo-Fascists

Tel Aviv is also casting its net westward. The more headway the neo-fascists make, the more they interest Israel. With intriguing consequences. The young leader of the Italian Liga was enthusiastic after his trip to Israel in 2016. 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 a leader of the Swiss hard right, Oscar Freysinger, at the origin of the November 2009 referendum to ban the construction of minarets, indulged in 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.”3

The electoral advances of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) were the object of contradictory reactions in Tel Aviv. For while the party’s president, Beatrix von Storch never misses a chance to insist on her support for Israel in the common struggle against Islamism4, other leaders issue ever more provocative statements, putting a damper on any possible dialogue. Thus Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s two spokespersons, has 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 minister and head of the Mossad, famous for the kidnapping of Eichman, had no qualms about praising the AfD: “All of us in Israel appreciate your attitude towards Judaism,” he assured it. “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.”

In Austria, the Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions

Only the French Rassemblement National (RN, ex-FN) remains persona non grata in Israel, despite the fact that Marine Le Pen’s companion lived there for a time. As Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesperson 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 issue of Israel’s relations with the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) has been raised behind the scenes: a Likoud 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 a dialogue with it.

Without actually compromising itself officially with Jorg Haider’s successors, Israel did issue an invitation last June to the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz who heads a coalition which includes the neo-Nazis. The provocative young man visited the Yad Vashem5 and had the nerve to declare: “ 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 even caused an incident with his guide, a Jewess of Austrian origin. In front of the television cameras, Debora Hartmann pointed out to Sebastian Kurz that the FPÖ still numbered 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 no sooner had he taken office than the new head of government announced that “part of his program 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”. . .

“Their antisemitism matters not so long as they are Zionists”: thus might be described the governing principle of this ostentatious campaign of seduction conducted by the Israeli Prime Minister among the right-wing populist and neo-fascist circles of Europe. But it would be a mistake to reduce these manoeuvres to mere realpolitik: they are in fact part of this Premier’s personal and political DNA. Personal, because his father, Benzion Netanyahu, had always been close to Zeev Jabotinsky, the leader of right-wing revisionist Zionism and was in fact his assistant. Political, because the precursors of the Likoud, i.e. the Irgun, the Betar and the Lehi (or “Stern Gang”)6 were largely involved with Fascism and Nazism. By dint of harping on the fact that the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al-Husseini, travelled (alone) to Berlin where he created two (Bosniac) SS legions, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Lehi as such, offered to ally itself in 1941 with the III Reich. And that the Betar, then the Irgun, in the early twenties, had the political support of Benito Mussolini, who admired Jabotinsky: “In order for Zionism to achieve its goal,” il Duce opined, “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.”

These are the people who shamelessly accuse anyone who dares criticise their politics of antisemitism!

1NDT. A Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris.

2As early as 1970, the historian Szymon Datner estimated at 200,000 the number of Jews who died at Polish hands during WW2.

3Quoted by Olivier Moss, in Les Minarets de la discorde, ed. Patrick Haenni et Stéphane Lathion, Religioscope-Infolio, 2009.

4Frau von Storch even organised in the European Parliament a group called “Friends of Judea-Samaria” (the biblical Israeli designation of the West Bank), an event announced triumphantly on the website of the Jewish Defense League, 26 September 2017.

5NDT. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem.

6NDT. All Jewish terrorist groups at the end of the British mandate and the creation of Israel.