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Analysis: Israel and Poland lose with honor in face-offs with world bodies

The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the United States declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was declared "null and void" on December 21, 2017 in New York City
SPENCER PLATT (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP)
In Israel and Poland, national pride trumps pragmatic interest when it comes to world bodies like the UN or EU

The very same day that Israel's top diplomats including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (also foreign minister) were struggling to minimize the damage of a UN General Assembly vote rejecting US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, Poland’s top diplomats were embroiled in their own struggle against pending sanctions imposed on them by the European Commission.

The connection between the two events is not reserved to simultaneity only. Both preventive diplomatic combats reflect another striking similarity between the two very different countries: both seem oblivious to the norms and expectations of a changing and confusing new world.

Politics, norms, and affiliations have changed in contradictory ways. Both Israel and Poland struggle to preserve their proud sovereignty against world institutions like the EU and the UN, a battle they perceive as crucial. Sometimes they win, more often they lose.

Israel's most recent struggle was to convince as many UN-member states as possible to vote against, or at least abstain from voting, on a resolution rejecting Trump’s controversial declaration regarding Jerusalem. Top Israeli politicians, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, openly declared that the still ongoing riots that followed Trump's declaration are “worth any price to pay”. Pride is a strategic asset in this region.

EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ (AFP)

So it is in Poland, too. Just three hours after the European Commission triggered – for the first time in history – the article of an EU treaty sanctioning member governments who violate the Union’s fundamental norms, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law those new Polish acts that had infuriated the bloc.

The reforms signed by the president are perceived as politicization of the Polish judiciary system. The sanctions imposed on Poland by the EU might lead to suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the pan-European body. Yet, ardent supporters of the PIS nationalist government ruling Poland since 2015, say it was worth it. Proud Polish political analysts are happy to announce that president’s act sent a clear sign that Poland is a sovereign state, leading independent policy, not deterred by Brussel’s radical steps.

In essence, the move was the Polish version of Israel's statement that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital is worth any price to pay. In both Israel and Poland, national pride often trumps pragmatic interests.

Only this time, the story took an unexpected twist. Poland and Israel -- known (for obvious reasons) for their “special relations” -- seem to have temporarily loosened the bond.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI (AFP)

In response to a question about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, Poland's foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski declared that “Poland still considers Tel Aviv to be the capital of Israel”.

While 128 members of the UN General Assembly rejected Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, Poland and four other eastern European nations abstained breaking EU consensus on the issue.

The rift between east and west within the EU has never been more obvious. Poland is the first to be severely punished by the bloc through sanctions. This reflects another intricate problem. One of Waszczykowski’s main endeavors has been to build a strong Central European lobby – comprised of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic – to better integrate within the EU.

“We need a strong lobby," Waszczykowski said in an exclusive interview with i24NEWS earlier this year. The coordinated vote at the United Nations may seem to prove that such an alliance works successfully, however, not all nations considered allies in that lobby objected the sanctions imposed on Poland by the EU. While they were not vocal supporters of the move, they were also not totally quiet on the punishment.

Chris J Ratcliffe (AFP)

In Waszczykowski's March interview with i24NEWS, the Polish foreign minister complained that “Frans Timmermans [Vice President of the European Commission] is on a crusade against Poland."

He attributed this attitude to the fact that a “right wing party”, referring to his own PIS party, "dared win elections in liberal Europe.” His sentiment is probably at least partly true. The nationalist streak sweeping Poland led by a populist government is considered by the EU as undermining the very core values of the Union.

And that is exactly what the EU thinks about Israel's long-time presence in Palestinian territories, along with most other nations that make up the United Nations -- an institution considered by current Israeli establishment as one of its greatest arch-enemies.

Israeli right-wingers often blame the left of collaborating with the UN. Prior to the recent UN vote, Netanyahu called the world body a “house of lies."

EMMANUEL DUNAND, EMMANUEL DUNAND (AFP)

Similarly, Poland's right-wing PIS government blames its opposition for cooperating with hostile EU entities. The leader of the nationalist party in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, commented few months ago that he found the EU threats concerning the rule of law “amusing”.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin is often named a "traitor" by Israel's radical right, enraged by his attempts to preserve democratic values. Meanwhile in Poland, a renowned political analyst wrote that by signing into law the two articles that triggered unprecedented EU steps against the country, “the President saved himself from being labeled 'political traitor'”.

According to Polish experts, the President also saved the support of the right-wing base voters of his party. Israelis are all too familiar with this type of political motivation. It becomes even more difficult in a country that is part of bigger international structure, like Poland in the EU, where 80 percent of Poles do not necessarily like the institution but do not necessarily want out of it.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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