Europe is facing many internal challenges ranging from the leadership crisis in Germany which seems to have been temporarily averted, to the wider migrant crisis which continues to be a source of both social and political friction throughout the European Union – to the trade war with the United States, to the possible collapse of the UK government in the midst of an increasingly awkward Brexit crisis. But when it comes to being lobbied by foreign powers, the Middle East’s fiercest rivals are both lobbying two different parts of Europe simultaneously but for surprisingly related reasons.
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a compromise deal with Poland after earlier this year, Warsaw passed a new law which made it a crime to ascribe the crimes of the Holocaust to the Polish nation and Polish people. At the time, Tel Aviv objected as some Jewish historians consider some Polish people to be guilty of the crimes that are otherwise only ascribed to the fascist German regime of Adolf Hitler.
Now however, Netanyahu has reached a compromise with Poland whereby the Israeli leader whose own family roots were in Poland has acknowledged the Polish resistance against fascism and the personal assistance that many Catholic Poles gave to Jews who were hiding from the fascist German occupiers of the Second Polish Republic. In this sense, the original nature of the Polish law remains intact except that now those found guilty by Polish courts of ascribing blame for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish people will be fined rather than face the possibility of prison.
Netanyahu has come under fire for his rapprochement with Poland from many of his normal domestic supporters as well as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. This underscores how controversial Netanyahu’s deal with Poland is among Israelis at a time when it remains largely unnoticed in Europe outside of Poland. Why then would Netanyahu do something he knew would cause controversy for himself in Israel in order to restore good relations with Poland, especially considering that throughout the dispute the US clearly backed the pre-compromise position of its allies in Tel Aviv rather than its allies in Warsaw?
The answer has little to do with history and everything to do with the present. At the moment, many of the eastern European nations that have emerged as a united group within the European Union known as the Three Seas Initiative are collectively rejecting the Brussels-Berlin-Paris model of “old Europe” and are instead embracing a more populist approach to pan-European issues, most notably the migrant issue. The Three Seas nations also tend to favour a more loosely confederate Europe as opposed to the strict union favoured by many centrist politicians in Germany, France and the Benelux countries.
Of all the leaders of a Three Seas nation, Viktor Orban of Hungary tends to typify this new trend of eastern European leadership that is populist at home, pragmatic in terms of foreign policy and is generally highly pro-Israel. While Europe as a whole continues to count itself as an ally of Tel Aviv, on issues ranging from the recent mass murder of Palestinian activists to the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal), much of western Europe is siding with both Palestine and Iran, something that Netanyahu himself has repeatedly highlighted.
In this sense, while prominent figures in Tel Aviv and Warsaw have disagreements about the interpretation of the past, they remain united in terms of interpretations of the present. Because of this, Netanyahu did not want to break the otherwise mostly united eastern European consensus which tends to favour Israel’s position in the Middle East over that of its adversaries over a matter of history – albeit a matter of history that is central to both the Polish and Jewish experience of the 20th century.
Meanwhile in western Europe, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been busily lobbying Europe to take more concrete steps to preserve the JCPOA which the EU as a whole has vowed to uphold. That being said, because the EU likewise refuses to broaden its trade horizons by dropping anti-Russian sanctions and signing a free or near-free trade agreement with China, the EU’s ability to leverage its protectionist and anti-Iranian American partner is increasingly compromised. Because of this, Iran’s leaders are trying to both force the EU out of its state of effective paralysis over the JPCOA by exposing their weakness before US pressure, while at the same time, Iran continues to ingratiate itself to major western European powers so as to gain its own version of ‘western leverage’ against its partners from the broader global east. In other words, Iran is using both positive and negative reinforcement techniques to try and both encorage and shame western Europe’s richest states to stand up for the JCPOA against the wishes of both Washington and Tel Aviv.
In terms of Europe it is generally in western and central Europe where both private and public sectors do the most business with Iran and are therefore keenest on saving the JCPOA from the united wrath of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. In an unrelated matter but one which ultimately also influences western Europe’s policy towards Tel Aviv, the growing Muslim population of countries like Germany, France and The Netherlands provides something of an incentive for these nations to join Palestinian calls for an investigation of Israel’s slaughter of protesters in Gaza, while for eastern European nations that specifically refuse many if not most non-European/non-Christian/non-secular immigrants, the Palestinian issue is far more remote.
Therefore, at a time when Donald Trump is exerting maximum pressure on western Europe to drop the JCPOA under the threat of sanctions which could do damage to major EU economies that rely on the US market for exports, Netanyahu is triangulating this strategy by doing everything he can to preserve the pro-Israel consensus of eastern Europe. The penultimate aim for Netanyahu is to weaken the collective European position among the generally pro-Washington and pro-Tel Aviv governments of eastern Europe so that they effectively tell their western European colleagues that saving the JCPOA simply is not worth it – a conclusion that for very different reasons, one can now assume western European leaders will eventually reach themselves.
It goes without saying that winning eastern Europen support over an abandonment of the JCPOA is a priority for Benjamin Netanyahu as he risked offending the sensibilities of many of his own domestic supporters in order to ‘win back’ the largest member of the Three Seas – Poland. Therefore, while Poland’s overall position on the Holocaust has remained firm, it is ironically the Israeli leader who has agreed to shift his position on a sensitive subject for the sake of present day pragmatism that like for most things in Netanyahu’s world revolve isolating Iran.