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Israel's Netanyahu scorned for wooing Holocaust-distorting political allies

Netanyahu's outreach with far-right leaders in eastern Europe has drawn criticism. [Getty]

Date of publication: 31 January, 2019

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Netanyahu's outreach in eastern Europe is part of a larger strategy of forging alliances to counter criticism at the UN and other international forums over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's warm welcome for Lithuania's prime minister this week marks his latest embrace of eastern European leaders who have offered strong political support while promoting a distorted image of the Nazi Holocaust.

Netanyahu met on Tuesday with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, with both leaders stressing joint interests between the two nations.

Lithuania is among a slew of former communist nations swept up in a wave of World War II-era revisionism that seeks to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust while making heroes out of anti-Soviet nationalists involved in the mass killing of Jews.

In Israel many say Netanyahu is cynically betraying the victims' memory.

Lithuania, for instance, has been a leading force behind creating a joint Memorial Day for all victims of totalitarianism, blurring the distinction between the crimes of the Nazis and the communists who fought them.

It also has pushed for legislation to prohibit the sale of books that "distort Lithuanian history" by citing the rampant, documented collaboration of the local population with Nazis.

Critics say Netanyahu - who often invokes the Holocaust when inveighing against archrival Iran - turns a blind eye when it comes to like-minded allies

Most recently it has resisted calls to remove the various plaques commemorating anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, despite recent revelations by his own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, that he was a fierce anti-Semite who had a role in the murder of thousands of Jews.

Nearly all of Lithuania's 200,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

When Netanyahu, who has Lithuanian roots, visited Vilnius last year, he praised Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis for taking "great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust" and for fighting modern-day anti-Semitism.

"It's unforgivable. Netanyahu is giving them a green light," said Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "It's like praising the Ku Klux Klan for improving racial relations in the South."

"We have to say the truth. We owe it to the victims," he added.

In a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, Skvernelis said "Lithuania has been learning the lessons of the past" and was "improving the life of the Jewish community and restoring historical sites."

At Tuesday's meeting, Netanyahu treaded cautiously. He referred to the "tragedies of the past" but steered clear of any criticism of modern Lithuania, praising the "spirit of friendship" and "a bridge from the past to a future."

Skvernelis' visit comes a week after Netanyahu similarly rolled out the red carpet for President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, whose parliament just designated the birthday of Ukrainian wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera a national holiday.

A regional legislature declared 2019 "the year of Stepan Bandera."

Bandera's forces fought alongside the Nazis and were implicated in the murder of thousands of Jews.

As Poroshenko was visiting Israel, another memorial was being erected in Kiev for Symon Petliura, whose troops are linked to pogroms that killed as many as 50,000 Jews after World War I.

Netanyahu's outreach in eastern Europe is part of his larger strategy of forging alliances to counter the criticism Israel faces in the United Nations and other international forums over its occupation of Palestinian territories and its treatment of Palestinians.

Critics consider it a deal with the devil. They say Netanyahu - who often invokes the Holocaust when inveighing against archrival Iran - turns a blind eye when it comes to like-minded allies.

"It's a specific manoeuvre that legitimizes anti-Semitism and borders on Holocaust denial," said Tamar Zandberg, leader of the dovish Meretz party.

The prime minister's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Netanyahu has also formed a close alliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has lavished praise on Miklos Horthy, Hungary's World War II-era ruler, who introduced anti-Semitic laws and collaborated with the Nazis.

Orban has also employed anti-Semitic tropes against the Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros and backed a state-funded museum that experts say plays down the role of Hungarian collaborators.

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