WARSAW (Mar. 1)
The Polish government’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel on Tuesday, after a break of more than 22 years, is a move fraught with historical and political significance.
Although Poland now has only a few thousand Jewish residents, it has long been the cultural center of European Jewish life and plays a unique role in world Jewish affairs.
A sizable portion of Israel’s Jewish population has roots in Poland. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was born there, as was the current one, Yitzhak Shamir.
So it was a major news event in Israel when Foreign Minister Moshe Arens came here to join his Polish counterpart, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, in signing the protocol restoring tics severed by Poland in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War.
In one sense, the step may make little immediate difference. Technically, the protocol elevates the present low-level interests sections the countries maintain in Warsaw and Tel Aviv respectively to full-fledged embassies.
But Israel’s interests section in Warsaw, opened in 1986, already handles a full range of diplomatic affairs. “We are the busiest mission in Warsaw,” insists Ami Mehi, the second secretary. “Other embassies are amazed at the volume of our work.”
The four-member office is headed by Mordechai Palzur, who automatically became the new Israeli ambassador Tuesday. A new Israeli ambassador to Poland is expected to be named later this year, after Palzur completes the normal four-year tour of duty.
Israeli officials here say there will be no immediate increase in the four-member diplomatic staff.
FOURFOLD INCREASE IN TRADE
Yet while little functionally may change in the operation of the mission, there’s little doubt that over the longer range, the formal restoration of diplomatic ties will have substantial significance.
It is being accompanied by discussions during the Arens visit of further cultural, scientific and business ties. Israeli-Polish trade reached a volume of $60 million last year, a fourfold increase from the previous year.
“By establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, we hope to improve the dialogue on both sides,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Stefan Staniszewski observed in a recent interview. “We realize that we did not make the right decision” in 1967, he said.
The Polish recognition continues a rapid series of changes in Israel’s diplomatic position in Eastern Europe, which have flowed from the fall of Communist regimes.
With the exception of Romania, all East bloc countries imposed a diplomatic boycott on Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, though East Germany did not have ties to begin with. Hungary restored full diplomatic relations in September, and Czechoslovakia followed suit Feb. 9.
Here in Poland, diplomatic recognition comes at a critical moment in Polish-Jewish relations. Traditional antagonisms have been exacerbated by the still smoldering controversy over the presence of Carmelite nuns at the former Auschwitz concentration camp.
The dispute embittered relations between Jewish and Catholic leaders, and produced a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism.
Jewish residents who are seeking to build their religious life in the new Poland badly want some reassurance, and Israel remains a key for them.
“Recognition of the State of Israel is important, of course, but I will believe it when I see it,” Piotr Kodlcik, who runs a travel agency, declared with typical skepticism last week.
IMPORTANT FOR CATHOLICS, TOO
The move is important also for the Catholic community, whose leadership has been trying to smooth the rift with Polish Jews.
“Recognition of Israel is just as significant for us,” insisted Waldemar Chrostowski of the Warsaw Academy of Catholic Theology.
There has been an immense upsurge of interest in Jewish history and culture among Catholic intellectuals here in recent years, a trend that paralleled the emergence of the worker-led Solidarity trade union movement.
Diplomatic recognition may give such interest official sanction and could increase the exchange of Polish and Israeli visits.
Last year, 12,000 Israeli tourists visited Poland, and almost that number of Poles made the trip to Israel. Foreign Ministry sources say that Lot, the Polish airline, is now discussing with El Al Israel Airlines the possibility of increasing the twice-a-week flight schedule between the two countries.
Other results could be more joint ventures between Polish and Israeli business firms. “There is a very big field for this kind of cooperation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Staniszewski.
Staniszewski also said the Polish government would like to play a role in hastening a Middle East settlement. “We want the relationship to be beneficial to both sides,” he observed.
Poland supports the United Nations resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict and backs both an international conference on the issue and direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A DIMINISHED, AGING COMMUNITY
“Poland stands for the guaranteed existence of a free State of Israel, but at the same time, we support the right of the Palestine nation for an independent existence,” said Jan Piekarski, a Foreign Ministry expert on Israel.
The Jewish community in Poland is now variously estimated at 6,000 to 10,000, compared to a prewar population of 300,000 Jews in Warsaw alone.
After the tragedy of the war years, substantial numbers of Jews still lived in Poland, but three successive waves of migration depleted their numbers as they faced the hostility of the Community government.
Now the surviving Jewish community is heavily weighted with aging, often ill and isolated members, who need sizeable social and economic aid.
There is, nonetheless, the tentative beginnings of vibrant, young Jewish communities in Warsaw and Katowice. It is expected that Poland’s new relationship with Israel will give them a tremendous boost.