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Who’s One of Israel’s Best Friends? the Answer is Surprising — Poland

The newly elected president of a European country, in his first interview for that country’s largest newspaper, compared himself to Ariel Sharon to explain the policies he intends to pursue. His country has troops on the ground in Iraq, close military ties with Israel and a voting pattern on Middle Eastern issues in the United Nations that rests halfway between those of the European Union and the United States.

Over the last 15 years, each of its presidents paid state visits to Israel, reciprocated by his Israeli counterparts, as have several of its prime ministers and foreign ministers. Israel events at this country’s major universities draw large and positive audiences, while the rare anti-Israeli demonstrations are so small they do not even make it to the local media. And in that European country, the United States retains its position of “most-liked” in all public opinion polls. That country is Britain, right? But when was the last time that a British college had an Israel day? And come to think of it, don’t they have a queen, not a president?

That country is Poland. Ever since the fall of communism, the country so many Jews love to hate has consistently pursued a pro-American and pro-Israel policy.

In fact, this — and economic liberalism — has been the only consistent feature of Polish politics, with its dizzying swings of public mood. In the latest about-turn this fall, the Poles voted into office a conservative, nationalist and strongly pro-Catholic party, with ties to the right. And yet it was that party’s victorious presidential candidate, Lech Kaczynski, who compared himself to Ariel Sharon — probably the only European leader ever to do so.

The declarations made by Kaczynski — who makes his first official state visit to Washington this week — did not come out of the blue. Previously, as mayor of Warsaw, he was instrumental in the city’s decision to allot substantial municipal funds to the building of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, intended to become one of the continent’s largest Jewish museums. He also brought about close cooperation between the Polish capital and Tel Aviv.

As minister of justice in a previous conservative government, he decisively pushed for the full disclosure of the World War II-era massacre at Jedwabne, where a community of Polish Christians murdered their Jewish neighbors. And at a recent meeting with Jewish leaders, top advisers to the prime minister stated that the government’s policy on Jewish and Israeli issues will remain positive. “We do not intend to give in to European political correctness on Israel,” one of them said. Nor is there any talk of loosening ties with the United States — even if Poland has been called “America’s Trojan horse inside of the European Union.”

Therefore it seems that the Kaczynski administration will follow in the footsteps of previous post-Communism Polish governments. The first foreign policy decision of the new democratic Polish Parliament in 1989 was to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, broken off by Eastern Bloc countries (excepted Romania) in 1967 on Moscow’s orders.

Though the Czechs, not the Poles, became the first ex-Communist nation to send an ambassador to Tel Aviv, this was due to the fallout from a statement by then prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, who had said that “Poles suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk” — hardly an encouraging gesture. Still, Warsaw was second, after Prague — and in the meantime, became a main transit point for Soviet Jews leaving Russia for Israel. The Hungarians backed off after a terrorist attack. The Poles did not, though terrorist threats were — and remain — aplenty.

In 1991, the mustachioed Solidarity hero-turned-president — Lech Walesa — made a state visit to Israel, the first ever by a Polish leader, or by the head of a former Soviet Bloc state. Addressing the Knesset, he asked forgiveness for evils committed by Poles against Jews in the past, and assured Israelis that modern Poland is a friend they can trust. Thereafter, commercial and cultural relations boomed (Israeli investments in Poland today amount to some $2 billion), youth exchange followed, and military ties came soon after.

Today the Polish army is buying Israeli Spike missiles, while security services maintain a close cooperation. And though expectations by some Israeli politicians that Poland, after joining the European Union in 2004, would become “Israel’s ambassador” to the continental bloc may have been overly optimistic, statements by the Polish ambassador to Israel condemning Palestinian terror have provoked howls of outrage from some of his European colleagues — and denunciations sent directly to Brussels.

Though sincere intent to compensate for evils of the past is a significant motivation for this consistently pro-Israeli policy, it probably would not have happened without the country’s intense pro-Americanism.

Jews had reason aplenty to think bitterly of the Poland that was, and therefore mistrust the Poland that is. There is indisputably still social anti-Semitism in the country, even if local Jews say they feel safer wearing a yarmulke on the streets of Warsaw than on the streets of Paris. But mistrust is one thing, willful blindness another.

No country on the European continent today is both as strongly pro-American and pro-Israeli as is Poland. Sure, the Poles do it partly because they believe it is in their national interest. But one would be hard pressed to find a sounder basis for a friendly partnership.

Tad Taube, a San Francisco businessman born in Poland, is president of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture and of the Koret Foundation.

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