Will Lithuania become Israel’s wedge in the European Union? The message Netanyahu sends to his own

Benjaminas Netanyahu, Saulius Skvernelis
DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

With B. Netanyahu’s historic visit concluding, Lithuania is beginning to lean toward the US‘ position on Iran. This was the discussion topic on Delfi’s Dėmesio Centre with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. Also of a talk with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, Delfi.lt analyst Ramūnas Bogdanas and MP Emanuelis Zingeris.

Mr. Prime Minister, could you say, what was the main goal of your visit to Lithuania, its main message?

B. Netanyahu. To strengthen our friendship. We are two small democracies, we face many challenges, however we look to the future together and we see that we can do more together. Israel is a country of innovation with impressive technologies. Lithuania has excellent laser and other technologies. I believe we can join these resources.

That the first. Second, Lithuania is a member of the European Union, a part of Europe. Israel is Europe’s defender in the Middle East. Israel has prevented tens of terrorist attacks against Europeans on land and air. With the help of our especially professional services and other means, we have protected countless European lives. We wish to send this message to the European Union. This is because often, when we talk about the European Union and Brussels, we see that a distorted image of Israel is created and it reduces the understanding that Israel cares for European security in the Middle East. All of Europe – that of the West, as well as East and Central Europe. Israel is one of the main defenders of European interests and values.

Mr. Prime Minister, there are nevertheless people in Lithuania, who believe that your visit is a successful attempt to place a wedge in or fracture the European Union’s Middle East policy.

B. Netanyahu. In terms of the Middle East, I believe the European Union should be united in terms of Korea. Care for democratic challenges there. Israel is an example of a prominent, successful democracy, where everyone enjoys equal citizens’ rights. Where else could you find such a democracy? It is as if a flash of light in a sea of darkness. Do you know who understands this in the Middle East today? Many Arab states know that the key to their security and progress is cooperation with Israel. The whole world understands it. It is time for the European Union to understand it.

We heard your powerful address to your grandfather at the Paneriai Memorial, which stands testament to one of the greatest tragedies of Lithuanian history. Could the tragic story be a barrier, a wedge, which obstructs the creation of new relations between our countries?

B. Netanyahu. I do not think so. I believe that it must be the basis of us drawing closer. We had a majestic past here, excellent schools and excellent rabbi. Vilnius was once called the Jerusalem of the North, the Baltic Jerusalem. All this was destroyed by Nazi massacres. Yes, we know Lithuanians also participated in it. Nevertheless, I believe that by coming to terms with the past, striving to combat antisemitism, as the Lithuanian government is doing, telling the new generations the truth about the historic tragedy so that such cases could be avoided in the future, through this we can create strong bilateral relations. We must combat barbarism, terrorism and genocide, whatever shape it may take. Once again, just like with technologies, with progress, equally in this – we can do more together.

Mr. Linkevičius, is it justified to believe that Lithuania is taking up the defence of Israel’s interests in Europe?

L. Linkevičius. No, what we are taking up and already doing is to bring together for conversation. This is a historic visit to the Baltic States, but it was also historic in Brussels. It was initiated and organised by us. For more than 20 years, no Israeli prime minister had visited Brussels. Of course, one visit cannot bring down mountains, but let us agree that direct contact is a must.

So Lithuania is already a leader in this area, you mean.

L. Linkevičius. I only wish to say that it is not our goal to agree to everything or pander. We have our own stance in many questions, but that we are contributing to conversation, the Israeli prime minister concedes this. It is naïve to have ambition to be an active player in the region, but not talk directly and only through press releases. In this case, I am somewhat also criticising the EU leadership’s position. We know, perhaps we express our position more. For example in terms of the question of Iran, we know that the US is very critical, Israel is very critical, but we, Europeans, say that having less is better than nothing. But we say that there’s too little of it. There are many areas that are not covered by the agreement – ballistic missiles, potential support for terrorist organisations and such. I would not say that we are thinking differently than the Europeans, but perhaps we understand what is happening in Iran better. It is help in communicating, not some attempt to take a side.

Mr. Bogdanas, the Baltic States are traditionally held to be among the most pro-American European states. This is especially true with the UK withdrawing from the European Union. Perhaps this is an explanation of an entire four days’ visit to Lithuania and such major Israeli interest in the Baltic States?

R. Bogdanas. I believe that the situation with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania is a little different. This is because in the world Jewish consciousness, Lithuania is a special country. I believe that our country should be glad and take pride that our diplomacy managed to build a bridge to such a world level politician as B. Netanyahu. He has been a global politician for 18 years now, he is known by political kitchens across the world and the world’s mighty talk to him. And here these four days in Lithuania are an exception. It is rare that such a busy politician spends so much time in a small country. What did he dedicate these days to? From both sides, his grandparents are Litvaks. His roots are here. He has returned to his forgotten homeland.

But let us return to what we already discussed with the minister. In what way can pro-American and pro-Israeli policy, for example in regard to Iran, be useful to Lithuania?

R. Bogdanas. First of all, I believe that the Middle East question, even if the conflict is there, but ripples from that conflict always spread much further. And even if they do not directly reach Lithuania, then they impact us indirectly through the EU because Lithuania is an EU member state. And in this regard, Lithuanian diplomacy finds itself with an important role.

Yes, but just sitting at the table is not the goal – the aims are probably much greater?

L. Linkevičius. You know, if we were just extras, that’d be one thing, but in this case we are not extras, we have things to offer. The parties that are trying to talk know us. Israel is a world player and if we manage to come to them and offer something constructive for their dialogue with the EU, with problematic countries, we must use it. Are we talking about shelling of the Gaza Strip from Israel once a week? If I recall well, on July 14, 175 rockets or shells were directed at Israel. What is this? Is it normal. Due to this, they say that they wish to defend themselves, they have the right and we emphasise that they should not use excessive force. That is the truth. However, we must concede the fact that Hamas has place women and children as human shields and are organising provocations.

MP Emanuelis Zingeris is urging Lithuania to take a different position toward Iran than Europe’s major states.

E. Zingeris. There are increasingly many countries in the Arab world that sympathise with Israel and its determination to not yield to Iran. I believe that we should be closer to the United States in regard to Iran. Iran’s leadership is filled with fanaticism. Ideologically, they seem like the communist leaders of 1917, full of ideological fanaticism. Thus, I believe that we must be more careful with this country of fanatics and the American reaction is completely understandable.

Another matter, Mr. Linkevičius, where criticism and discussions arose during the visit is that, as E. Račius put it, Lithuania has not made use of this visit in order to explain to B. Netanyahu, what a threat Russia is. What would you answer?

L. Linkevičius. Firstly, I am surprised because to my memory, E. Račius did not participate in those meetings. I can say that we raised those questions very earnestly. Especially about Russia – both we and Latvia with Estonia spoke of it. We clearly presented arguments, why we do not trust the country, its mediation and such. We also raised the questions about settlements, about the declaration of the national state and many other questions.

Mr. Skvernelis, Vytautas Magnus University professor Egdūnas Račius criticised you, as well as the Latvian and Estonian prime ministers that you did not make use of this opportunity to talk about Russia and the threat it poses. As if to open B. Netanyahu’s eyes, who has been at the May 9th parade in Moscow, wearing a St. George Ribbon. It is as if you agreed to become Israel’s vassals in the lands of Europe, gaining nothing in return. What would you answer to Egdūnas Račius and other critics?

S. Skvernelis. I would say that perhaps one shouldn’t talk about where you didn’t attend. I had a bilateral meeting with a truly exceptional politician, a political heavyweight – an informal dinner, later formal meetings alongside the Baltic and Israeli prime ministers, an informal lunch – in all these formats, the question of Russia, the relations between Israel and Russia, the relations of the Baltic States and Russia, they were not only raised, but there were even acute statements and exchange of opinions. Trust me, the capacities of Israel to know, what is going on in not only the Middle East region, but also our region are especially large. Yes, today Israel has a complicated situation – they have to interact with Russia just like with other states. Same as we found out more about what is going on in the Middle East, the Israeli prime ministers is now well informed, what Russia is to us, same as we found out what Iran is to Israel. We can see a sort of parallel here because everything was very clearly expressed. It is truly unfortunate that people comment without knowing.

The prime minister says that we can see parallels in what Iran is to Israel and what Russia is to us. Was this expressed during the meeting, Mr. Linkevičius?

L. Linkevičius. Much was said. This also was. I would only like to briefly add that the relations between Israel and Russia can be defined as follows – they do not interfere with one another’s interests. Israel is not interfering with Russia’s issues and Russia does not interfere where things matter for Israel.

R. Bogdanas. Remember that Iran is Russia’s ally in Syria. And Iran is a threat to Israel. Thus, in trying to push Iran away from its borders, Israel has to talk to Russia so that it would maintain neutrality.

Mr. minister, when looking at both Twitter and other social media, how much B. Netanyahu has interacted with his countrymen – did he enjoy being in Lithuania?

L. Linkevičius. I can say he truly did – as far as I saw those four days and his emotions on departing, Lithuania “hooked” him emotionally to a great extent. He spent all of Saturday walking in the old town, six hours in Trakai. He flew out late in the evening on Sunday; perhaps saying he enjoyed it is an understatement.

Mr. Bogdanas, did Lithuania make good use of this historic opportunity?

R. Bogdanas. We can talk about a variety of aspects, but I wish to mention just one – our relation to the Holocaust. Golden words were said that this tragedy must unite us, not separate and antagonise. Thank God, that even the Israeli prime minister says that if both sides see it as a tragedy and value it as that – the tragedy can unite us even more in the name of common goals.

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