For Netanyahu, Lithuania is a dream come true since the Palestinian issue isn’t on their public agenda, and the term “West Bank settlements” isn’t part of the country’s lexicon.
By Tal Shalev
With international discontent over Israel’s policies growing, the Israeli dance company “Bat Sheva” has gotten its fair share of boycott threats. But the strident sounds of BDS demonstrators were replaced this week by loud applause as the celebrated ensemble performed at the Lithuanian national theater in Vilnius. Clapping enthusiastically, alongside the Israeli ambassador, was Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
A country with an extremely small Muslim community, the Palestinian issue is not on the public agenda and the term “West Bank settlements” is not part of its lexicon. So while other EU countries are preparing labeling initiatives, and pension funds are divesting from Israeli banks, the Lithuanian government is seeking to attract Israeli investments.
Diplomatic relations were established after Lithuania’s independence in the 1990s and last year an Israeli embassy opened in Vilnius. Ties in agriculture, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are expanding, and more than 14,000 Israeli tourists visited Lithuania last year, twice the 2013 figure.
In numbers, Lithuania might not be the most important country for Israel, with less than 3 million people and bilateral trade of only $70 million. But the country’s international role as a member of the EU and NATO has proven quite significant and Vilnius is one of Jerusalem’s closest friends in one of the most hostile arenas – the UN.
In October 2011, Lithuania was among 14 countries that voted against Palestine’s UNESCO membership, and in November 2012 it abstained in the vote on upgrading Palestine’s diplomatic status. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Vilnius stood up staunchly for Israel’s right to defend itself during last summer’s Gaza war, and abstained on the December Palestinian statehood resolution. Vilnius also didn’t join 16 fellow European foreign ministers, who sent a letter in April calling to expedite labeling of settlement goods.
“We try to use our position in any organization to demonstrate our good will,” says Foreign Minister Linkevičius, “Lithuania’s position is that it supports the two-state solution, but only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can solve the conflict. We’re not experts in the area but we believe it is helpful to refrain from unilateral steps, and we will never agree with boycott.”
“The Lithuanian government sees Israel as a role model for a small country fighting for its existence, both in the economic realm and the security realm,” explains Israeli Ambassador Amir Maimon.
Amid growing concern in Vilnius over Russian moves in the region, Vilnius recently increased its defense budget and is trying to counter attempted cyber attacks and airspace violations. “The Israeli abilities to deal with security challenges and threats are valuable for them,” Maimon says. Defense Minister Olekas agrees, and points to the government’s decision earlier this year to reintroduce conscription, with the Israel Defense Forces serving as a leading model. “We need expertise and experience – and Israel is one of the best,” he says.
With admiration for the Israeli military and the Palestinian issue off the agenda, Lithuania is a dream-come-true for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself of Lithuanian descent. Netanyahu isn’t alone: Lithuania was a significant center of eastern European Jewish life and the “Litvak” community rose to positions of leadership and prominence in Israel. President Reuven Rivlin often cites his ancestral connection to the “Vilna Gaon”, the leading Jewish scholar of the 18th century, and former President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak have Lithuanian roots, as do some 200,000 other Israelis.
Ancestry aside, Netanyahu would also feel at home with some of the Lithuanian government’s preferences. Since the fall of the USSR, the United States has been Lithuania’s main global ally. But the Lithuanians seem to prefer President Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, who pushed for the country’s admission into NATO in 2002, and helped provide it with missile defense. President Grybauskaite, also known as the “Iron Lady”, refused to meet with Obama in 2010, protesting against a US-Russian arms treaty. Bush, on the other hand, is quoted on a plaque at Vilnius Town Hall as saying: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”
In rhetoric reminiscent of Netanyahu on Iran, Lithuanian officials speak of Russian aggression as an almost existential threat. The government is especially concerned with what officials call an “orchestrated falsification and manipulation campaign” to discredit Lithuania through Russian-language TV stations in the country. A 20-person armed forces strategic communication department keeps up Lithuania’s effort to counter “hostile propaganda.”
While the Lithuanian leadership takes pride in the Litvak Jewish heritage, the government’s attitude towards the Holocaust, in which more than 95 percent of the Jews were murdered, has been harshly criticized by Jewish groups. That dark episode in history caught Lithuania between the Soviets and the Nazis, and Lithuanians appear to minimize the local complicity in Nazi atrocities, drawing an uncomfortable equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes.
Representatives of the Jewish community, estimated at around 6,000, maintain that the government is making enormous efforts to educate about the Holocaust. In 1995, the president of Lithuania formally apologized in the Israeli Knesset for his country’s role in the Holocaust, and the president annually attends the Paneiri (Ponar) official memorial ceremony for Holocaust victims. A recently passed law compensates the Jewish community for its property losses, and an amendment recognizes rescuers of Jews as freedom fighters. However, Ambassador Maimon says there is “still much to do to preserve and honor the country’s Jewish past.”
“From darkness to light,” sums up the foreign minister, who says: “We hope to be moving forward from a period of mutual mistrust and negative facts to a new golden era.”
Tal Shalev is the i24news diplomatic correspondent.
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