Surprise! Poland has become one of Israels strongest allies

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 U.N. that lies 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 and foreign ministers.

Israeli events at its 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 a 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 prime minister, not a president?

That country is Poland. Ever since the fall of communism barely 16 years ago, the country so many Jews love to hate has consistently pursued a pro-U.S. and pro-Israel policy. In fact, this — and economic liberalism — has been the only consistent feature of Polish politics, with its dizzy 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 President Kaczynski — who made 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 massacre at Jedwabne, where a community of Polish Christians murdered their Jewish neighbors in World War II.

At a recent meeting with Jewish leaders, top advisers to Kaczynski’s 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 EU.”

Therefore it seems that the Kaczynski administration will follow in the footsteps of all previous Polish governments after communism ended. The first foreign policy decision of the new democratic Polish parliament in 1989 was to reestablish diplomatic relations with Israel, broken off by Eastern bloc countries (except Romania) in 1967 at 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-Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak 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 the 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 today’s 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, which it is best to leave confidential. And though expectations by some Israeli politicians that Poland, after joining the EU in 2004, will 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.

Abandoned by their allies to the Germans at the onset of World War II, and again to the Russians in Yalta after the war was over, the Poles have, over the years of the Cold War, developed trust in the United States as the only force that stood up against the “evil empire.”

Living today next door to a Russia which, if no longer communist, is neither democratic (look at Putin and the elections) nor peaceful (look at Putin and Chechnya), Poland counts on Washington for its national security. This is why Poland bought F-16s, and not European fighters, at the eve of its EU accession, and this is why Poland sends its troops to fight in Iraq.

When the French ambassador called on the Francophile intellectual and former foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, to bitterly complain about this last decision, the minister answered: “Mr. Ambassador, you are not seriously proposing we entrust the security of this country to the French army, do you?” Geremek knows: He is a Nazi ghetto survivor, just like one of his successors, Adam Rotfeld.

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 as 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 Bay Area businessman born in Poland, is president of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture and of the Koret Foundation.