Duda’s fateful Polish victory a mixed bag for Israel, Jews - analysis

Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks during his election meeting in Solec Kujawski, Poland, June 9, 2020.

Incumbent Duda’s narrow victory, with only 51% of the vote, over his opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, spoke to the deep divide in Poland.

Polish President Andrzej Duda’s narrow victory in an election cast as a battle for his nation’s soul is likely to help Israel politically, even though a number of his past policies strained ties between the two countries and stoked antisemitic fears among some Jews.
The election pitted Duda’s socially conservative religious platform against a liberal democratic one.
For Duda’s supporters, this was a race about Polish sovereignty over its own affairs, while his opponents warned that Poland’s future as a democratic nation was at stake.
Incumbent Duda’s narrow victory, with only 51% of the vote, over his opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, spoke to the deep divide in Poland over those issues.
It was perceived that Duda and Trzaskowski had an interest in maintaining Poland’s friendship with Israel, but the areas in which they were likely to be able to advance those ties differed.
With West Bank annexation looming, Duda’s good relations with US President Donald Trump and his ongoing battle with the European Union places him in the position to stand up for the Jewish state precisely at a time when a number of EU states are threatening to downgrade ties with Israel.
Trump’s hosting of Duda in Washington at the end of June, within weeks of the Polish election, speaks to the kind of leverage the US president could have with the Polish leader when he wants to push forward his peace plan, which includes the annexation of West Bank settlements.
Trzaskowski, in contrast, wanted to mend fences with the EU and would therefore have been more cautious about taking a stand in support of Israel when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump would not have had the same leverage with Trzaskowski as he does with Duda.
But when it came to domestic Polish issues and issues specific to the Jewish community
it was perceived among some that Trzaskowski was likely the safer bet.
Duda is allied with the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) Party, which has instigated judiciary and media reform, something the EU has warned subverts democratic standards.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Jakub Morawiecki (PiS) is in a more powerful position to advance governmental reform feared harmful to democracy, and he remains in office irrespective of who holds the presidency.
In Poland, however, the president has the power to veto any legislation. Had Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform Party been elected, he would have provided a system of checks and balances to the PiS agenda.
Unlike the prime minister, the Polish president has a set term of five years and cannot be voted out of office until completion of his term.
The concern is that governmental reforms that weaken democracy inevitably also weaken minority standings, such as that of Poland’s small Jewish community of 20,000-40,000.
During his first term, Duda spoke positively of Jews and maintained a good relationship with its Jewish community. As president, he visited Israel twice, once in 2016 and again in 2017.
Within hours of the election results, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder issued a congratulatory statement, noting that Duda had “worked to improve relations with both the Polish and international Jewish communities, as well as with the State of Israel.”
“Duda recognizes the importance of celebrating the 1,000-year-old heritage of Polish Jewry and the fact that Polish Jews made immeasurable contributions to Poland,” he said. Duda “has sought to preserve the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the killing field of European Jewry – for future generations,” he added.
Duda has spoken out in the past against antisemitism, “and we remain hopeful that he will continue to do so,” Lauder said.
But Duda failed to veto a 2018 law that criminalized statements that referred to concentration camps as Polish death camps or that held the Polish nation complicit with the Holocaust. It was Morawiecki who helped ensure the legislation was downgraded by the Polish parliament to a civic offense.
That domestic law inevitably strained relations with Israel, which had opposed the legation. Last year, there was a misunderstanding about a statement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made with regard to the Holocaust. That was followed by former foreign minister Israel Katz stating that Poles “suckle antisemitism with their mother’s milk.” His statement led to Poland’s withdrawal from a key summit of the Visegrad Group countries – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – which had been scheduled to take place in Israel.
Concerns about Duda also surfaced during the presidential campaign, which at times made use of homophobic language to go after the LGBTQ community. At times, Duda’s campaign also included antisemitic attacks against Trzaskowski, making it seem as if he would be controlled by Jews or that he wanted to give away Polish money to foreigners. This in essence meant Trzaskowski would support monetary restitution to Jews over property lost during the Holocaust and later confiscated by Socialist Poland. Some of those attacks were made on state television and or by PiS members.
“The Jewish community of Poland was shocked that President Duda made a statement that specifically appealed to the votes of antisemites,” Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said.
“Up until now, we have had a close relationship with the president, [although] not always agreeing with his  domestic policies,” he said.
“The president has consistently been very pro-Israel,” Schudrich said. “It is clearly our hope that in his second term, these relations with Israel will be strengthened and that he will consistently fight against antisemitism in Poland and around the world.”
Israeli Jonny Daniels, who runs a Polish NGO called From the Depths, which works on issues relating to remembering the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, said the situation was complex. He said he did not want to downplay the issue of antisemitism, but he liked to believe that the way it surfaced during the campaign was a temporary ploy to win votes – not unlike Netanyahu’s statements about Arab-Israelis being bused to the polls in droves.
Daniels said he knows both the candidates and that both were supportive of the Jewish community in Poland, but that now that the elections are over, one should keep an open mind about Duda.
It was important to remember that the presidency is limited to two terms, he said. Duda has secured his second term, so he is no longer beholden to his party and is much more free than he has been to take steps in support of the Jewish community and Israel, Daniels said.
Reuters contributed to this report.

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