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Foreign minister denies lifting ban on Romanian party accused of antisemitism

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Thursday denied lifting a ban on contacts with a right-wing Romanian party accused of antisemitism, but acknowledged Israel may reconsider ending the boycott.

Cohen was responding to the Haaretz daily’s revelation that Likud MK Amit Halevi initiated a discussion at the Foreign Ministry last month on reexamining Israel’s stance toward right-wing nationalist parties in Europe.

According to the report, Halevi was invited by Cohen to a meeting top ministry officials, and decided to end Israel’s official boycott of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, a growing opposition party that holds 12 percent of the seats in parliament.

The newspaper said the deliberation influenced Cohen’s decision to end the boycott of the the AUR and order the ministry to reassess Israel’s stance toward the party, despite opposition by the Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial.

“Fake news,” Cohen tweeted in response.

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The nationalist, Christian party called Holocaust education a “minor topic” in 2022 after it was mandated in Romanian high schools.

Israel’s ambassador to Romania, David Saranga, argued then that the statement fell under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which Romania’s government adopted in 2017.

George Simion, right, and Claudiu Tarziu, the leaders of the Alliance for the Unification of Romanians (AUR), a new political formation that came fourth in the parliamentary elections, gestures during a press conference at the party headquarters in Bucharest, Romania, Dec. 7, 2020 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

During legislative elections in 2020, AUR shocked most of the country by winning 9% of the national vote, entering parliament for the first time. Some of its leaders have defended the record of historical figures who served in the regime of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu — an ally of Hitler — or were part of the fiercely antisemitic Iron Guard, a revolutionary fascist movement.

According to official Romanian statistics, between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered or died in territories under Romanian administration during World War II.

“Thus far, there has been no contact between Israel’s embassy in Romania and the Foreign Ministry, and the Romanian AUR party,” Cohen said “among other things, because of statements from some members praising war criminals who committed crimes against Jews in the Holocaust.”

Cohen said AUR party leader George Simion has been working “to change the party’s stance toward Israel and the Jewish world, which includes expressions about Romania accepting responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews on its territory in World War II, denouncing antisemitism, defining the dictator Ion Antonescu as a war criminal, and the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust.”

He also said the Foreign Ministry “in coordination with various figures including Yad Vashem” was weighing whether the AUR’s recent statements represent a real change that will open the door for Israel to revisit its boycott.”

Likud MK Amit Halevi leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In January, after an administrative unit of Bucharest’s city council refused to dismantle a bust honoring the finance minister in the country’s WWII pro-Nazi government, an AUR parliamentarian accused the Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania — which champions the removal of monuments honoring Nazi figures and collaborators — of “rewriting Romanian history and demolishing the cult of its heroes and martyrs.”

There is pressure from activists in the Likud — including Halevi — and right-wing Israeli organizations to embrace nationalist parties in Europe, which are generally pro-Israel despite often having historical ties to antisemitic figures.

Halevi told Haaretz that Israel can be “a model for the European right of national identity based on a moral foundation,” as well as nationalism that is “against racism and xenophobia and upholds individual rights.”