SOFIA (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended Bulgaria's Holocaust record on Thursday, reaching into history in his bid to buttress Balkan bonds as Palestinians campaign for U.N. recognition of statehood.
Though allied with Nazi Germany, the Bulgarians safeguarded their 50,000 Jews. Many later emigrated to Israel, whose status as Jewish homeland Netanyahu wants Palestinians to endorse - a big bone of contention in stalled U.S.-sponsored peace efforts.
"Bulgaria is under-appreciated," the Israeli leader told Reuters during a visit to Sofia, likening its actions to Danish resistance against round-ups by the German occupiers.
"It's one of the more remarkable stories - perhaps the most remarkable story in terms of the number of people who participated, who stood up."
He offered public praise at a news conference, to the gratification of his Bulgarian counterpart.
"I would like to thank the Israeli prime minister for sending a message from Sofia to the world about what the Bulgarian people did during the times of Nazism," Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said.
The Palestinians, who abandoned peacemaking after Netanyahu refused to renew a freeze on Israeli settlement-building last year, plan in September to seek U.N. acknowledgement of their claim to sovereignty over all of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
Central and eastern European states, former Soviet satellites keen to reorient toward the West and liberalize their economies, have been receptive to Netanyahu's message that a Palestinian statehood accord must be negotiated.
The Balkan warmth, in contrast to the frost of many western European capitals where Netanyahu is viewed as intransigent, is explained by analysts as a result of both common cultural values and realpolitik.
Israel's falling out with the Turks over its Gaza policies helped mobilize Ankara's old rivals in the region in Netanyahu's favor. They are also interested in Israeli natural gas finds as potential supplements, or substitutes, for Russian-dominated energy supplies.
Nor are Balkan states blind to the standing ovations Netanyahu received in May when he outlined his Middle East vision before the U.S. Congress.
"Across the Western Balkans there have been attempts to court Israel and the Jews as they are, in part, seen as ways to the American heart," said Ben Judah of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Judah said this applied across areas that suffered bloodletting between Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as the latter "see Jews as fellow victims of genocide."
Netanyahu, who made an unscheduled stop at Sofia's more than century-old main synagogue, noted Israel's cross-sectarian appeal.
"In general in the Balkans, everyone I have met there from opposing sides finds something of an affinity to Israel -- because, I think, their formative experience has been the negative experience of living under totalitarian rule."
Additional reporting by Irina Ivanova; editing by Andrew Roche