Netanyahu praises Lithuania as EU slams illegal Israeli settlements
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu began a groundbreaking visit to Lithuania on Thursday, saying he hoped to deepen ties with eastern EU nations as Brussels blasted Israel's illegitimate plans for fresh illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Dozens of pro-Palestine activists waved Palestinian flags and chanted that Netanyahu was "not welcome" while railing against Lithuania's warm ties with Israel outside government buildings in the capital Vilnius, where he held talks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis.
Netanyahu thanked Skvernelis for the "strong position you've taken in forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency".
"Israel is often mistreated by the EU in Brussels, there are many distortions that are levelled at us, and it is refreshing to see that you take a stand of clarity, of truth and of courage, and we discussed how that can be expanded," Netanyahu added.
Israel approved plans for more than 1,000 illegal settlement homes in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, prompting EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic to say that the bloc was "strongly opposed" to Israel's "illegal" settlement policy, calling it "an obstacle to peace".
The illegal settlements "would further jeopardise the prospect of a contiguous and viable future Palestinian state," she said on Thursday.
Netanyahu said he wanted "to achieve a balance in the European Union's not always friendly relations with Israel" before boarding his plane for the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Lithuania.
He will meet the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in Vilnius on Friday during the visit, which is set to last until Sunday.
He will also pay tribute to Lithuania's once vibrant Jewish culture and its tragic end during the Holocaust.
Advocates in EU
Lithuania has traditionally been one of Israel's better friends in the European Union, a result in part of the Holocaust's legacy and close alignment with the US.
The Baltic nation was behind Netanyahu's invitation to meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels last December, irking some EU officials.
"Lithuania and the other Baltic states are probably regarded by Netanyahu as voices that could play the role of Israel's advocates inside the EU," Vilnius University professor Ramunas Vilpisauskas told AFP.
Netanyahu has regularly sought sympathetic ears within the EU, particularly among countries that can serve as a counterweight to the critical treatment Israel often receives from western European nations over its policies in the Palestinian territories it occupies.
Netanyahu has also been eager to convince European countries to exert more pressure on Iran after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions - something Israel had advocated.
The EU was one of the signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which it has sought to salvage after the US withdrawal.
The European countries say the deal is working as intended, keeping Israel's arch-enemy Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for now.
Netanyahu also praised the "good" decision of Air France and British Airways to halt flights to Tehran next month, a move the carriers said were taken due to low profitability amid the renewed US sanctions.
Many Israelis have origins in Lithuania, including Netanyahu's grandmother, who was born in the northern town of Seduva.
"Lithuania was my ancestor's home for many generations. The story of Lithuania's Jews is both one of great triumph and great tragedy," Netanyahu said.
"You have taken great steps to commemorate the victims of Holocaust, to speak openly about this horrible crime that must never be repeated," he added, also thanking Skvernelis for his efforts to fight anti-Semitism.
Netanyahu will meet with members of the Jewish community in Lithuania and visit a memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims there.
He will also award a Lithuanian family the title of Righteous among the Nations for having saved their Jewish neighbours from the Nazis.
Lithuania was once a hub of Jewish learning and home to more than 200,000 Jews before World War II.
Over 90 percent of Lithuania's Jews died during the 1941-1944 German occupation at the hands of Nazis and local collaborators.
The country's 2.9 million population today includes around 3,000 people who identify as Jewish.
51 years of illegal occupation
Israel has occupied the West Bank illegally since 1967, committing various crimes against Palestinian civilians.
More than 600,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, in constructions considered illegal under international law.
Along with stealing land, occupying Israeli forces and settlers routinely torment Palestinians.
The settlers had slashed tires of a car in the village and painted racist slogans in the area, Ghassan Daghlas a Palestinian Authority official who monitors illegal settlement activity in the occupied West Bank said.
Last week Israeli forces demolished residential apartment buildings in the Palestinian village of Issawiya and in East Jerusalem.
Local sources in Jerusalem said that Israeli forces, accompanied by a bulldozer and a truck, stormed into the Issawiya village - the Jabal al-Mukaber neighbourhood in the occupied city - and began to besiege the centre of the village before demolishing a two-story apartment building.
The demolitions were carried out under the pretext of not having a permit, which are near impossible for Palestinians to obtain.