Israel’s murky relations with far-right nationalists trigger diplomatic storm

Bosnia - an anti-Nazi demo in Sarajevo's city center in 2020 (Elvis Barukcic - AFP)

Peter Osborne

Middle East Monitor  /  August 25, 2022

Israel has made a desperate bid to salvage its reputation in the Balkans after its ambassador endorsed a proposal to change Bosnia’s election laws even though the change is expected to harm the interests of the local Jewish communities and the Muslim majority.

The change, it is believed, will also strengthen the position of far-right extremists who have reportedly refused to condemn the crimes of Croatia’s fascist regime during World War Two. The regime supported Nazi Germany and was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews.

The Israeli foreign ministry reprimanded Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler on Wednesday, two weeks after Haaretz published details of a leaked memo in which he endorsed a controversial election reform plan opposed by the local government and supported by nationalist parties. The controversy has been described as a “new nadir for Israeli diplomacy”.

The Haaretz editorial said that Israel had sunk to a new low in the Balkans and claimed that the state was working against the interests and desires of the local Jewish community, not to mention the Bosnian Muslims who suffered acts of genocide under far-right nationalists. The editorial expressed alarm over Israel’s “grotesque romance” with what it called reactionary, ultranationalist, anti-Muslim and sometimes even anti-Semitic political movements in Europe, including pro-Nazi figures.

The memo to back election reform in Bosnia was also slammed by the local Jewish community in Bosnia. The president of the community, Jakob Finci, denounced Israel’s decision to involve itself in his country’s internal politics and accused the embassy of acting in support of a local ethnic Croat political party.

In an email to Haaretz, Finci said that he was “astonished” that the ambassador would back a plan to minimise the political influence of Jews, Roma and other minorities in the country. The plan has been welcomed by Croat nationalists while eliciting protests from the country’s 900-strong Jewish minority. Bosnia’s Muslim majority also expressed anger over Israel’s unwelcome intervention in the country’s domestic politics.

Haaretz noted what it called Israel’s “complicated history” with ultranationalist groups in the Balkans; the occupation state’s alleged arms sale to Serbian forces which massacred Bosnian Muslims was highlighted. Details of Israel’s role in the massacre are still under a gagging order and it’s thought that the publication of such documents could seriously damage Israel’s foreign relations. Over ten thousand Muslims were massacred by ultra-nationalist Serbs in what was the worst genocide in Europe since World War Two.

“The Israeli embassy is now working against the interests and desires of the local Jewish community while cooperating with right-wing populists and alienating Muslim friends,” said Haaretz. “All of these ought to be red lines in Israel’s foreign policy, not least as the next US presidential election nears.”

Responding to the decision to censure Gendler, Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic is reported as saying that, “We welcome the clear rebuke and actions undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid of any policy that discriminates against any minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina based upon their ethnicity or religion from holding the highest office in the land. The Jewish people have been an integral part of the fabric that makes up Bosnia for centuries and have been one of its strongest advocates during its most difficult time of independence. Any exclusion of them is unacceptable.”