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Israeli media falsely attributed Islamophobic and Iranophobic statements to the Croatian president

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: GPO/Haim Zach)

At the end of July, Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović traveled to Israel for a state visit during which she meet with her host, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein and Foreign Minister Israel Katz. Two held discussion topics were common to all Croatian-Israeli bilateral meetings, the first is the Holocaust and the second is strengthening trade cooperation. As with all previous meetings, it always starts with official dirges and endless apologies by Croatia for the World War II fascist NDH regime, as if there's a collective and eternal guilt of the Croats for the crimes of the Nazi puppets, and as if Israel represents all Jews as a whole. Then, based on the past sins, the Israeli officials are demanding lucrative economic deals which have so far proved to be very controversial.

This time, controversy arose during the visit itself, more specifically in statements by the Croatian president that she allegedly gave to the Israeli conservative newspaper Jerusalem Post. Their journalist Greer Fay Cashman published the following paragraph: "While nearly all claim to be Syrian refugees, most are actually African or Pakistani migrants who try to break through the border from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Grabar-Kitarović said was very unstable, and had in some respects been taken over by people who have connections with Iran and terrorist organizations. The problem is that the refugees are being left behind." These words were allegedly spoken during a discussion with the Israeli president, on the topic of the European refugee crisis.

Fierce reactions

It didn't take long for the Jerusalem Post's allegations to appear in local Balkan media as well, which of course sparked fierce reactions from the highest ranking Bosnian politicians, directed against the Croatian president. Željko Komšić, a politician who serves as the Croat member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said it is obvious that Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is not unstable, but Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović herself:

"I am sorry that the President of Croatia continues to pursue propaganda activities against Bosnia and Herzegovina by presenting brutal untruths. However, it seems that when it comes to these hoaxes, this is no exception but a rule in Grabar-Kitarović's attitude towards BiH. Just recently, my claims that Croatia is driving away migrants who have never been on the territory of BiH have been proven to be correct, despite Grabar-Kitarović's claims that the process is reversed. Such persistence in propaganda against BiH further strengthened the belief that the security services of the Republic of Croatia were working on damaging the country's reputation and thereby questioning its viability," Komšić said, further adding that the Islamophobic subtext of her statement does not need to be specifically explained to a reasonable person.

Similar reactions came from Šefik Džaferović, the current Bosniak Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who stated: "It is clear to everyone in Europe and in the world that these are lies created by the aggressive and xenophobic policy of official Zagreb towards BiH and Bosniaks, which has all the elements of fascism. The statements of the Croatian president represent the same propaganda vocabulary used by convicted war criminals and leaders of the so-called Herceg-Bosna when trying to justify the monstrous crimes they committed against Bosniaks. Let the Croatian president deal with the growing radicalization and militant neo-fascist movements in her country, instead of dealing with other people's backyards and attacks in order to damage BiH's image."

Statements denied

The abovementioned statements by two Bosnian politicians further inflamed criticism of official Zagreb, thus culminating in serious political tensions between the two countries, but then Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović responded and categorically denied the controversial statement. Asked whether she made the reported statements about BiH, including that: "The country is now controlled by militant Islam, which is dominant in setting the agenda," she said: "Absolutely not. I spoke with President [Reuven] Rivlin in the context in which I talk about BiH and our other neighboring countries. And what, after all, I said at press conferences before meeting President Rivlin and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, is that I want to see our neighboring states as soon as possible in the EU."

Her denial left many wondering and several questions were raised: Did she indeed make controversial statements in an attempt to ingratiate herself with the Israeli politicians, and later simply withdraw her words? Is the Jerusalem Post paragraph perhaps a synthesis of her separate statements, but of an equally controversial nature? Or is it an Israeli newspaper fabrication? The correct answer was known only to the editorial staff of that outlet, more specifically journalist Greer Fay Cashman who, under pressure from the media and politicians, admitted that the alleged statements were untrue. Cashman clarified that Grabar-Kitarović had not spoken about BiH in the context of her talks with Israeli leaders about Iran:

"She mentioned Iran in one word only, strictly in relation to migrants who pose as Syrian or Afghan refugees but actually come from Africa and various parts of Asia. She also said that there were potential militants among them and thus represent a problem. She did not link the BiH authorities with the militants and Iran, but with the migrants." Cashman declined to answer the detailed questions, quickly removed the controversial paragraph from the original article, and did not apologize.

Official agenda, not a mistake

The final question that arises is whether it was a journalistic mistake or a miserable attempt to put the Israeli agenda in the mouth of the Croatian president? Well, the first option is easy to rule out given the earlier outbursts of Israeli diplomats in Croatia. Rare followers of international relations will remember a case dating back to 2002 when Israeli diplomat in interview with Slobodna Dalmacija's Tomislav Klauški made a bombastic statement about "the threat of Islamic terrorism from Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The statement was made at a time when Croatia-Israel relations were in its infancy, just months after the mutual visa regime was introduced. Since Croatia's independence, bilateral relations have been disastrous because of Israeli pro-Serb stance in the war against Croatia, and in the second half of the 1990s due to the equalization of the Republic of Croatia with the Nazi regime of the 1940s. Israeli diplomacy in the early 2000s knew that building relations would be difficult, so they found the only common ground in Islamophobia, present among some of radical Croatian nationalists due to the Croat-Bosniak war that lasted in BiH from 1992 to 1994. The same type of advocacy was also applied by the Israeli diplomacy in Serbia and elsewhere.

According to these bizarre distorted interpretations, there is a binary world of alleged Islamic empire represented by both Palestinians and Bosniaks, and small non-Muslim bulwarks like Israel, Croatia and Serbia who are opposing terrorism. Of course, such inverted realities have found fertile ground among nationalist extremists and Israel gained limited popularity. The recent manipulations by the Jerusalem Post show that the Israeli Islamophobic agenda in the Balkans has remained unchanged for many years, which is also supported by numerous similar statements made by other ambassadors and politicians over the past two decades. Furthermore, we should remember that all public promoters of Islamophobia in the region are either directly connected or inspired by the Israeli regime.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.