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Leaders from around the world descend on Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is being swarmed by Western presidents, premiers and potentates, all descending on the Holy City to recall the Holocaust and speak out against anti-Semitism some 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.
It is a gathering like nothing Israel has experienced before.
But an event that might seem to be focused squarely on the past has been caught up in controversies and concerns of the present, with violence against Jews on the rise in Europe and North America, and with a noisy row between Russia and Poland over their roles in the start of World War II playing out this week on Israeli turf.
The kings of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, Britain’s Prince Charles and the presidents of Russia, France, Germany, Italy and Ukraine are among those leading nearly 50 delegations attending the events. They begin with a Wednesday dinner at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin of Israel and culminate in an afternoon ceremony Thursday at Yad Vashem, the hillside Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps, was a vast complex in occupied Poland near the town of Oswiecim that received some 1.1 million Jews and 200,000 Poles, Russians, Roma and others between 1940 and 1945, of whom 1.1 million were killed.
For Israel, the participation of so many world leaders is a point of pride: Only the funerals of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former President Shimon Peres attracted more, officials say.
But the turnout also points to the seriousness with which anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence is viewed in the West and in Israel — and offers representatives of countries considered hotbeds of anti-Jewish hatred a chance at least to demonstrate their revulsion for it on an international stage.
The event at Yad Vashem will feature speeches by representatives from four of the main Allied powers: Vice President Mike Pence, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Prince Charles and President Emmanuel Macron of France. Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has called World War II a “German crime” and apologized for the Holocaust, will also speak, as will Mr. Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and event organizers.
Jerusalem is only the first stop for some of the leaders participating. The actual anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, on Jan. 27, 1945, will be observed, as it is each year, at the site of the infamous death camp on Monday. In addition, Mr. Rivlin is to address the German Bundestag, in Hebrew, at Mr. Steinmeier’s invitation on Jan. 29.
As Poland and Russia duel, Israel is caught in the crossfire.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, was invited to the Jerusalem gathering but declined to attend over a perceived snub: He was not given a speaking slot, though Mr. Putin was.
The two have been engaged in a bitter dispute for months, with each accusing the other of trying to rewrite — and weaponize — history: Mr. Putin has sought to portray the Soviet Union as having saved the world from Nazism, and ignore its own 1939 nonaggression pact with Germany, framing Poland as more a perpetrator than a victim of the Holocaust. Mr. Duda argues that the Soviet agreement with Germany paved the way to war, and that Mr. Putin is reviving old Stalinist propaganda as a modern-day cudgel.
“I am sorry to say this, but President Putin is knowingly spreading historical lies,” Mr. Duda said in an interview with Israeli public television that aired Tuesday.
Fueling speculation that the Jerusalem gathering was being given a pro-Russian tilt is that its main organizer is Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, a Russian-Jewish billionaire with close ties to Mr. Putin. His group, the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, held similar events in Poland in 2005 and 2010, Ukraine in 2006, and the Czech Republic in 2015.
But Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev, said in an interview that Mr. Kantor had not exerted any such influence: “It’s not true.” Decisions on who would speak were made many months ago, he said, and to bend to accommodate Mr. Duda would be untenable when many other leaders were denied similar requests.
Mr. Shalev said he believed that having so many heads of state, government and parliaments making such a collective demonstration of resolve to fight anti-Semitism was well worth it, though he acknowledged that the Russia-Poland crossfire has been a headache.
“We’re in the business of historical truth,” he said. “We don’t want to play any political game.”
A last-minute casualty of the dispute was President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, who pulled out of the Yad Vashem event on Tuesday, reportedly in solidarity with Mr. Duda. Mr. Nauseda has joined Mr. Duda in accusing Mr. Putin of trying to sanitize Russia’s 1939 pact with Hitler.
The police and diplomats prep for biggest visit in years.
Tiny Israel has never had to tend to so many V.I.P.’s at once, complete with overnight stays and scores of elaborate schedules, and its diplomatic corps, police force and other government agencies were scrambling to prepare. (Leaders who attended the Rabin and Peres funerals mostly flew in and out on the same day.)
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs employs only five protocol officers, but many others were pitching in, including retirees. Some 10,000 police officers were being deployed to provide security and direct traffic, more than a third of the 29,000-strong nationwide force, along with hundreds more volunteers.
Asked on television what he feared most about what could go wrong, Ofer Shomer, a Jerusalem district police commander, replied, “Fear is not a word that exists with us.” The Israel Police force, he said, was highly experienced and had prepared for every scenario, from freak weather to sabotage.
King David Street, with its luxury hotels housing many leaders, was being “hermetically sealed,” the police said. And no-fly zones for all aircraft, including drones, were established over the main gathering points: Yad Vashem, the Israeli president’s residence, and the Crowne Plaza hotel, where Vice President Pence will be staying.
At the presidential residence, officials detailed the preparations for Wednesday’s dinner with breathless detail, noting even that “the grand piano has been tuned.”
But the home’s modest proportions were not enough to accommodate all 250 attendees. Only 60 ranking guests were to be seated indoors, in a soaring room showcasing 1970s-era Israeli art. Their “plus-ones” were to dine in a tent outside. Another tent was reserved for their many bodyguards.
The gathering came smack in Israel’s wintry rainy season. And with heavy downpours and even some flurries drenching Jerusalem on Tuesday, the president’s aides also mustered hundreds of portable heaters to keep the luminaries stuck outside from freezing.
The scramble for hotel rooms, red carpets, and eggs.
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem has had to engage in no end of clean-sheet diplomacy in preparation for the gathering. For one thing, it is hosting three kings, two crown princes, six presidents and Australia’s governor-general — but who gets the only rocket-proof suite, encased in reinforced concrete and built to withstand a major earthquake?
Sheldon Ritz, the ever-discreet but aptly named sales director specializing in the chain’s A-list patrons, refused to say, revealing only that rank was weighed against risk and that the decision was made in consultation with security officials.
With the likes of King Felipe VI of Spain, the Prince of Wales, President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany taking rooms, merely delivering breakfast will prove challenging. Some leaders travel with food tasters, who have been known to visit the kitchens to choose eggs at random for their lieges’ omelets.
The King David has more than recovered since the Jewish underground bombed its southern wing in 1946, killing more than 90 people, including British Mandate employees, Arab and Jewish hotel workers and bystanders. Still, the authorities are taking no chances. Tree-lined King David Street, a central artery linking several major hotels hosting dignitaries, will be closed to traffic from Tuesday evening till Friday morning.
Mr. Pence was too late to book into the plush King David, where many rooms were blocked for this week’s event as early as last March. He will be staying at the Crowne Plaza, a convention hotel a few miles away near the main entrance to the city.
The relatively new Orient Hotel rushed to buy lengths of red carpet to roll out a proper salute to its guests, including the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The Orient is far from the Crowne Plaza, limiting the chances of any awkward elevator encounters between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Pence, given the impeachment trial now underway against President Trump involving his dealings with Ukraine.
The spotlight is landing on a country in political turmoil.
For Israel, the gathering comes at a somewhat awkward time, when its political system is paralyzed by a deadlock that has prevented the country from forming a new government. Two elections last year each ended more or less in a tie.
A third ballot is set for March 2, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime right-wing leader, is again being challenged by Benny Gantz, a centrist who was once the army chief of staff. Mr. Netanyahu, who awaits trial on corruption charges, remains at the helm of an interim government.
Still, Mr. Netanyahu was expected to make the most of a series of bilateral meetings with leaders in Jerusalem for the event, officials say, beginning at breakfast with Mr. Macron on Wednesday. Among other things, Mr. Netanyahu is seeking support for Israel’s efforts to get the International Criminal Court to drop a nascent investigation into possible war crimes by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In an interview with the evangelical Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network, Mr. Netanyahu signaled that he would invoke the Holocaust in making that case, arguing that the court was mounting a “full frontal attack” on the Jewish people’s right to live in its ancestral homeland.
“A third of the Jewish people went up in flames,” he said. “There was nothing we could do. Now, after the Holocaust, the State of Israel was established and the attempts to destroy the Jewish people have not disappeared.”
At breakfast with the French president, Mr. Netanyahu said in a video he posted afterward, the two discussed Iran and other regional concerns. But he also said he pressed Mr. Macron on issues particularly important to French Jews, a small but growing constituency in Israel.
Among other things, he called on Mr. Macron to “deal with” the murder of Sarah Halimi, 65, was killed and thrown from her Paris window in 2017. A French court ruled in December that the killer, an immigrant from Mali, was “not criminally responsible” for his actions, sparking protests.
Mr. Gantz, for his part, has set meetings with a few of the visiting leaders, including Mr. Macron and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Ms. Pelosi is leading a congressional delegation including fellow Democrats Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel of New York; Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Susan A. Davis of California; and Brad Schneider of Illinois. Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, is lending the group a measure of bipartisanship.