Netanyahu praises Lithuania for help in balancing EU

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Vilnius on Thursday for a meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states, as part of his effort to create sub-alliances inside the EU to counteract what he views as often unfair treatment of Israel from Brussels.

“I am interested in balancing the not-always-friendly EU approach toward the State of Israel, so that we can get a more reasonable approach,” he said, before boarding his plane. “I do this through s with blocs of countries within the EU – the countries of Eastern Europe, now with the Baltic states and, of course, with other countries.”

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In pursuit of this policy, Netanyahu has initially developed a close alliance with Greece and Cyprus, by meeting with their leaders at a summit every year. He has also built a close relationship with the Visegrád group, made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, when he traveled to Budapest in 2017 for a summit for the first time with those countries’ leaders.

And in the coming weeks, he is expected to travel to Croatia to take part in a summit of several Balkan state leaders.

These efforts have reaped benefits, as the countries that comprise these different groupings often stand up for Israel in various EU forums. Most recently, some of these countries prevented the EU from adopting a resolution that would have condemned the US for moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

After meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Netanyahu said he wanted to thank Lithuania for “the strong positions you have taken in the forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency.”

Netanyahu said Israel is “often mistreated in Brussels,” and the target of “many distortions.”

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He said it is “refreshing” to see Lithuania take a stand, “of clarity, of truth, and courage.”

Netanyahu said he also appreciated the “sober” position Lithuania has taken on Iran, and praised . Netanyahu said that more countries should take this move, and that more countries will.

Netanyahu said his invitation to take part in the Baltic summit – which will include Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas – is a reflection of Israel’s “growing stature around the world.” He said Israel is interested in strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with those countries, and they are equally interested in developing ties with Israel.

This is the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to Lithuania, which prior to the Holocaust, housed one of the world’s largest and most influential Jewish communities. The Jewish population in the country numbered some 160,000 before World War II, or some 7% of the total population. Prior to the Nazi invasion in June 1941, the Jewish population swelled to some 250,000 – some 207,000 of whom were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.

Vilnius, known as “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and a great center of Jewish learning, had some 100,000 Jews before the war, making up about 45% of the city’s total population.

Netanyahu will pay homage to the country’s Jewish past, both the glorious and tragic parts. He will attend a memorial ceremony at the Ponary forest outside of Vilnius where 75,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered during the Holocaust. He will also award a medal and certificate to Birutė Šlapikienė, the granddaughter of a family of “Righteous Among the Nations” who saved Jews during this period.

In addition, he will visit the historic Choral Synagogue, Vilnius’s only Jewish house of prayer which survived World War II, where he will meet with members of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Before leaving, he will visit the grave of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), known as the Vilna Gaon.

Netanyahu told reporters before his plane’s departure there was also a personal dimension to his visit: “The families of my parents – of blessed memory – came from Lithuania at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries,” he said. “I am visiting for this as well.”

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