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The riddle of the Czech-Israeli alliance

The Eastern European Republic's longstanding support for the Jewish State is no mere public relations tactic

The ranks of Israel’s staunch supporters in the European Union may be thinning, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can still count on a loyal champion: the Czech Republic.

As the European Commission braces for a crackdown down on Israeli settlement products, the Czech president-elect, the Cherub-faced social democrat Milos Zeman, declares unwavering support for a pre-emptive strike against Iran.

A mishap? Hardly.

To the critics, the Czechs are Euro-skeptic “servants and lackeys” of the United States, eager to throw in a snapping punch to ingratiate their leading ally and remind the Eurocrats in Brussels of their sovereignty.

After last year’s UN vote on Palestine, they did have to fend off a few mockers. Just nine nations voted against the Palestinian Authority’s upgrade to a “non-member observer state.” The Czech Republic was the lonesome EU member holding on to its “no” along with the US, Canada, Israel and several dwarfish Pacific island nations. One-time opponents Lithuania, Germany and the Netherlands chose to abstain, while Sweden changed its position and voted in favor.

The Czech foreign ministry’s statement ahead of the vote echoed the concerns expressed by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who ex post called the vote “unfortunate and counter-productive,” saying it put more obstacles on the way to peace.

“The common goal, which is the co-existence of the state of Israel with an independent, democratic, intact and viable state of Palestine in peace and security, can only be achieved via direct negotiations,” seconded the Czernin Palace.

Some of the more flippant commentators were quick to snipe that the decision to side with Washington marks yet another ploy in the Czechs’ skillful plot to secure US support ahead of the selection of the next NATO secretary general. (Former defense minister Alexandr Vondra is hotly tipped as one of the Central European aspirants for the job.)

But the roots of the Czechs’ devotion to the Israeli cause are deeper and infinitely more intertwined. Their troubled history with the Sudeten Germans in multi-national Czechoslovakia in the interwar period sheds a bit of light on the more radical Zionist sympathies of some Czech leaders.

In 2002, the outspoken Mr Zeman – then prime minister – was chastised by both the European Commission and the Arab League for suggesting in an interview with Haaretz that Palestinians should be expelled from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, like the ethnic Germans from Sudetenland in the former Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.

When asked whether he was comparing the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Hitler, Mr Zeman said, “Of course. Anyone who supports terrorism, anyone who sees terrorism as a legitimate means, anyone who uses terrorism to cause the death of innocent people is a terrorist in my eyes.” At the time, Mr Zeman insisted he was misquoted.

But these sensational remarks only offer a skin-deep explanation. The Czechs were rooting for the Israelis much earlier: in a way, it is safe to say that this is a foreign policy tradition dating back to at least the Habsburg Empire.

The founding father of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, fought against the superstition of Jewish blood libel as early as 1899, in the anti-Semitic Hilsner Trial. Once president, he granted Czechoslovak Jews full civil rights. In the gloomy 1930s when rightwing extremism cast its shadow over pre-war Europe, Czechoslovakia was one of the few states that did not implement any anti-Jewish measures.

During the fight for the independent state of Israel in the aftermath of the war, his son, Jan Masaryk, who became Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister, was an active lobbyist for the Israeli cause in the United Nations ahead of the crucial 1947 vote on the partition of Palestine. When the newborn Jewish state was attacked by its Arab neighbours, Czechoslovakia ignored the embargo and provided the Israelis with arms, aircrafts and training for their pilots.

As a Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia had to align its foreign policy with that of the imperial overlord. But as soon as the country rid itself of the Soviet yoke in 1989, Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist ex-dissident-turned-president, chose Israel as the destination of his first foreign trip, reassuring the Israelis that they were “natural allies”.

Be it band-wagoning with the US, history or both, it is safe to say that as a society, the Czechs are loyally pro-Israeli, rather than anti-Palestinian, thanks, in part, to their own heritage.

Inhaling the air of mysticism hanging over the streets of Prague, where Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II experimented with kabbalah and Franz Kafka wrote his novels, it is not difficult to see why.

About the Author
Dr Kristina Mikulova is a transatlantic policy fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, and a freelance correspondent for Slovakia and Central Europe at The Economist.