Netanyahu's dangerous connections with Europe's far right

Netanyahu's dangerous connections with Europe's far right
Comment: The Israeli prime minister is conducting an ostentatious seduction campaign among the right-wing populist and neo-fascist circles in Europe, writes Dominique Vidal.
11 min read
02 Oct, 2018
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz heads a coalition which includes the neo-Nazis [AFP]
Europe is experiencing a rise of the extreme right, which is  taking power from Austria to Poland. Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

It all began on 19 December 2010, when a sizeable delegation arrived in Tel Aviv, consisting of some 30 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 of 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 Likud party devoted to the 'war on terror'.

Despite the unofficial nature of this initiative, the ultra-nationalist defense minister Avigdor Lieberman had a long talk with the rabidly Islamophobic Wilders, who returned the courtesy by going to harangue West Bank settlers.

According to the AFP, the man who would like to ban the Quran 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,". He 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."

Read more: Slovakia's deplorable move to criminalise Islam

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 Benjamin 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 anti-Semitism. These dangerous connections deserve to be better known, especially considering that much of the media, finds them too embarrassing to mention.

The double speak 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 roundup: "We will never give in to anti-Zionism because it is a revamped version of anti-Semitism." On the other hand, many do not know where he was the following day: In Budapest, paying tribute to his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban.

What are all these neo-fascists, some of them Holocaust negationists or Third Reich nostalgics, doing in Israel?

And yet Orban, only a few weeks before, had qualified 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 opposition to 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 anti-Semitism." 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.

Dutch MP Geert Wilders speaks during a conference
for Israeli right wing party Hatikva in Tel Aviv
on December 5, 2010. [Getty]

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 anti-Semitism 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 (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 a referendum, etc.

Yet none of this prevents the rulers of Israel from getting into bed with the rulers of Poland. Even when, at the risk of reinvigorating the anti-Semitism so deeply rooted in the country, Poland came 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 Holocaust 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.

In their 'crusade' against the Palestinians, the Israeli right and far right are prepared to form any alliance, however unholy

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 anti-Semitism 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 Auschwitz-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."

A deal 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 percent.

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 Holocaust.

"There was no Israeli reaction to these falsifications of the Shoah," argued Efraim 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 blocs 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, for in the view of many - except for 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 right-wing populists (in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) or left-wing populists (Slovakia). Israel is counting on them to change Brussels' policies in the Middle-East.

Enthusiastic neo-fascists

Tel Aviv is also casting its net westward. The more headway the neo-fascists make, the more they interest Israel. And with intriguing consequences.

The young leader of Italy's 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, Oskar 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 advantage... 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."

Nationalism and protectionism go hand in hand with Euroscepticism and right-wing Catholicism

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 Islamism, other leaders issue ever more provocative statements, putting a dampener 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".

Read more: For racist Israel, Ethiopian Jews are 'ruining the Zionist dream'

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 them. "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 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 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 Vashem (World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem) 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 Jewish woman of Austrian origin. In front of the television cameras, Deborah Hartmann pointed out to Sebastian Kurz that the FPÖ still numbered politicians "who need to have the Holocaust 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 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".

"Their anti-Semitism matters little, as long as they are Zionists", could then be described as 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 Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the leader of right-wing revisionist Zionism, and was in fact his assistant.

Political, because the precursors of the Likud, ie. the Irgun, the Betar and the Lehi
were largely involved with Fascism and Nazism. By dint of repeating the fact that the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, travelled (alone) to Berlin where he created two (Bosniak) 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 20s, had the political support of Benito Mussolini, who admired Jabotinsky:

"In order for Zionism to achieve its goal," Mussolini 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 anti-Semitism.

Dominique Vidal is a journalist and historian, and author of the French language book, 'Anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism? (Libertalia, February 2018).

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This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.