Czech policy towards Israel – a flood of sympathy without a drop of hypocrisy

Post date: Feb 17, 2013 10:21:56 AM

Czech policy towards Israel – a flood of sympathy without a drop of hypocrisy

Israel believes that the USA is its nearest and most reliable ally. The reason for this is Israel’s complex and reserved relationship with many European countries. Nevertheless, since 1989 and, in particular, since 2004, Israel has acquired other new friends in Europe – and the Czech Republic is the outstanding case.

The relations between Israel and Western European countries started to cool after the Six Day War in 1967. The liberal, mainly left-wing, European elite started to think of Israel as an aggressor. In their eyes, the Jewish state, which in the past was perceived as the weak David facing the powerful Arab Goliath, became the bully oppressing the Palestinians.

Western European countries started to criticize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank long before the issue became a byword in world diplomacy. Whereas the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was seen by Israel and the US as a terrorist organization, in many Western European capitals the PLO was allowed to operate as the organization representing the Palestinians' interests. Israel, contending with repeated terror attacks perpetrated by the Palestinians, including the murder of the athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, became detached from many European countries.

The complicated relationships between Israel and certain European states have been reflected in Israel’s relations with the European Union. One of the first initiatives promoted by the European Commision was the Venice Declaration in 1980 which acknowledged the Palestinian’s right to an independent government. This cooled the relations between the European Union and Israel for many years. Nevertheless, Israel began to seek ways to better communicate with Europe, mainly owing to the understanding of Europe's importance as a diplomatic-player.

2004 Brings Israel New European Union Friends

The European expansion of 2004 had an important impact on the European Union opinion on the Middle East conflict. The new, formerly Communist members brought with them a new perspective based on a different experience. These countries did not have a post-colonial syndrome. Following their bitter experience with Communist totalitarian regimes, they were less willing to become reconciled to the dictatorial regimes of the Arab countries in the Middle East. Moreover, as Russian satellite states, these countries had no choice despite everything but to maintain close relations with the Arab world.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, good relations with Israel became a symbol of freedom for former Communist countries. The countries of the former Eastern bloc also wanted to understand Israel’s stance regarding the regional challenges. With clear experience of the Cold War which included invasion and exploitation, they were less critical of Israel’s use of power. Lastly, but equally important, the post-Communist countries had fewer Muslim minorities, and this enabled them to form their Middle Eastern politics independently of political pressures by Muslim groups.

The Czech-Israeli special relationship

Among the Communist countries, the Czech Republic is regarded today as one of Israel’s closest allies. In recent years, Prague has supported Israel even during events which brought strong attacks from all the South and North parts of the European Union.

In summer 2006, when Israel fought the Hezbollah, many of the European countries demanded an immediate ceasefire. The Czechs, on the other hand, called for Israel’s right to defend itself. During Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, the Czech Republic was one of the few countries which did not condemn Israel’s defensive action in Gaza against the Hamas. The Czech position was highlighted at that time as Prague held the Presidency of the European Council and therefore was speaking in the name of the entire European Union.

The Czech plan to organize an Israel-European Union summit at the end of the Presidency, the aim of which was to upgrade the relations between the European Union and the Jewish state, was then canceled. Some of the European Union members were against strengthening the relations with Israel without progress in the peace process. Although the Czech program was not realized, the special relationship between the Czech Republic and the Jewish state remained strong. In order to understand the deep roots of this close relationship, one must look back to recent history.

In the Czech lands, the relations between the local population and the Jews were uncomplicated. The Czech Jews belonged culturally either to the German or the Czech populations of the country, which, until 1945, was very multicultural. Both the Czech- and German- speaking Jews were assimilated and were an integral part of the business, cultural and scientific elite of the Czech state.

In comparison to other parts of Eastern Europe, especially Poland, the Czech elites tended to be less antisemitic. In fact, the educated class which was philosematic influenced the country’s policy during the time of the First Republic (the period from 1918 until the Second World War). The most influential Czech at that time, the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism and of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1927 he was the first head of state to visit British Palestine.

For the average Czech citizen, the Munich Pact was, and still is, one of the most important events in forming their opinions regarding world politics. In 1938 Czechoslovakia was forced to relinquish a large part of her territory and hand it over to Hitler’s Germany after Britain and France signed a pact with Germany and Italy. The fact that two major powers betrayed a small state in Central Europe in order to appease the aggresive Nazi regime left the Czechs with a bitter feeling of almost unforgiveable betrayal and abandonment.

With this experience, the Czechs partially identify with the people of Israel. Unlike Czechoslovalia in the 1930s, the Czechs see Israel as the only democracy surrounded by non-democratic regimes. The Czechs can understand better Israeli skepticism regarding the idea that giving up territory will automatically lead to a lasting peace.

Trauma of surrender

Israel’s willingness to defend its territory with force and reluctance to rely on others for security, which is mostly interpreted in Western Europe as intransigence and aggression – is accepted with understanding in the Czech Republic. This country had unfortunate experience with Western powers, which in 1930 promised to guarantee its security. Yet, under pressure, they surrendered and sacrificed Czechoslovakia’s territory and consequently, the Czechoslovak army was forced to surrender without battle.

The trauma of that surrender contributed to admiration of Israel’s ability to resist attacks and fight back. Generations of Czechs who grew up in the shadow of Munich and lived through the time during which Czechoslovakia lost its independence again (under the Communist dictatorship in 1948 and in 1968 respectively), were moved by Israel’s ability to defend itself and for them this was a deep source of inspiration.

Similarly, Israelis feel affection for the Czechs. In 1947, on the eve of the establishment of the Jewish state, the Czech delegation to the UN special commission promoted the idea of the partition of Palestine into two states. At the same time, the Hagana pilots received their training in Czechoslovakia. One of the pilots, Ezer Weizman, later became President of Israel.

In 1948, on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel, Czechoslovakia was the first to supply Israel with arms. This was despite the international arms embargo. Older Israelis still see this aid as one of the decisive factors which helped the Jewish state achieve victory in the first Jewish Arab war in 1948-1949. However this military aid was not entirely altruistic, as Israel paid considerable sums for these weapons that were not at all scarce in Europe after the Second World War.

Although during the Communist period Czechoslovak-Israeli relations cooled slightly, immediately after 1989 relations were renewed. Today, the two countries do not see themselves as allies, but as much more. For Israel, the Czech Republic is a country which understands the Jewish state’s geopolitical situation and unlike some other Western European countries is not pacifist and hypocritical. For the Czech Republic, Israel is a democratic country, whose security and welfare are important for world democracy and freedom.

Business and geopolitics

Moreover, the two countries have built up strong economic ties. Israel, as a country which produces cutting-edge technologies, is a very attractive business partner for many Czech companies. On the other hand, as the European Union represents the largest market for Israel, a strengthened economic relationship with the Czech Republic which invests much in technology, affords Israeli companies with a good means to enter the European market.

The warm relations between the Czech Republic and Israel are built on a common foundation of geopolitical and economic interest. What makes this relationship special is that both countries share basic values and a similar understanding of the challenges the world faces today. The Czechs, compared to many European countries, are less naïve and do not take a courteous stance towards dictatorial regimes and towards the security challenges in the Middle East. This is much appreciated by the Israelis, who mostly see the Europeans as being unwilling to understand the security challenges in the Middle East, and also as hypocrites, as the Europeans on the one hand criticize Israel’s use of force, and on the other hand, rely on the USA to defend them.

When the Middle East peace process seems like a distant dream, it can only be hoped that close friendship between Israel and the Czech Rrepublic will help Israelis to better understand some of the viewpoints of European countries, and vice versa.

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