Roots of the Israeli-Czech friendship

Although a close friend of Israel, the Czech Republic has supported biased resolutions, contrary to its own democratic values.

C IL 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
C IL 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
During his most recent visit to Jerusalem in October, Czech President Miloš Zeman met with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Both Israeli politicians lauded strong ties between the two countries and praised Czech support for the Jewish state.
Peres appreciated both the strong Czech stance in its decision to oppose “the aggressive intentions of the Iranian regime,” and the role the Czech Republic had played in blacklisting the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (though the Czech Republic had initially opposed this idea).
Netanyahu thanked Zeman for his country’s friendship, saying that “Israel has no better friends in Europe than the Czech Republic.”
Zeman added that “our friendship is based on facts, not only words,” and mentioned that the Czech Defense Ministry was sending the CASA transport aircraft with 13 soldiers for a UN observer mission in the Sinai Peninsula – an area that has been flooded by several al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist groups, which are using it as a base for waging terror attacks against Israel.
The Czech Republic was also the only European country that voted against the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral statehood bid at the UN last November.
What are the roots of the Israeli-Czech friendship? Even before the First Czechoslovakia Republic was established in 1918, its founding father, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, played a positive role in the so-called Hilsner Affair – an 1899 anti-Semitic intrigue in which Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish villager in the Austro-Hungarian empire, became the target of blood libel accusations.
Masaryk, at that time a professor at the Czech University in Prague, led the fight for Hilsner. Once president, he represented the humanitarian character of the Czech nation and its tolerance in religious and national issues.
At that time, Czechoslovakia belonged to a small group of states that officially recognized Jewish nationality and granted Jews full civil rights. During the Masaryk era, three congresses of the World Zionist Organization took place in the Czech cities of Prague and Karlovy Vary. In addition, Masaryk was a keen supporter of the Zionist movement and the first head of state who visited the Yishuv in 1927. In recognition of this warm friendship, the Jewish state honored Masaryk by naming a kibbutz after him, as well as streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
As right-wing extremism rose in prewar Europe, Czechoslovakia was one of the few countries that did not apply any anti-Jewish laws.
The Munich Agreement – or Munich Betrayal – of 1938 had a huge influence on shaping the Israeli- Czech relationship and is helpful in understanding the Czech view of international issues. Under this agreement, the major powers of Europe agreed to give Nazi Germany the Sudetenland – the areas along the Czech border that were mainly inhabited by a German minority but belonged to Czechoslovakia – in a failed attempt to appease the Nazi war machine. On the eve of the Munich Agreement, the European press consistently depicted the Czechs’ abuse of the German minority and presented the second Czechoslovakian president, Edvard Beneš, as an obstacle to peace.
Additionally Czechoslovakia was an exemplary democracy – the only one in Central Europe – surrounded on every side by hostile non-democratic states, and its security was “guaranteed” by a series of international agreements and “promises.” After that tragic ceremony, Hitler won, Czechoslovakia lost its independence, and Britain and France lost their honor.
This history might explain why the Czech Republic supports Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, geographically surrounded by hostile regimes. It understands Israel’s struggle against an irredentist minority, and its needs for secure and defensible boundaries.
The Czechs perceive any territorial concessions as highly risky and dangerous moves; both they and Israel are skeptical that the “land for peace” principle will necessarily lead to a permanent peace. Israel’s experience with the Gaza Strip is an apt example of that strategy’s ineffectiveness.
Netanyahu also used the historical analogy of Munich during his last visit to Prague in November 2012, when he compared Munich with the UN resolution on Palestinian “statehood.” He said that “the Czech Republic [Czechoslovakia] was asked to make compromises, which ultimately not only endangered its sovereignty and security, but also the security and peace of all Europe, and we learned this lesson and so did you.We don’t intend to repeat it.”
Czech Ambassador Tomáš Pojar said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last December that one of the lessons the Czech Republic had learned was that “we strongly believe that solutions cannot be imposed from the outside, because they do not work.”
After World War II, Czechoslovakian foreign minister Ján Masaryk, the son of T. G. Masaryk, advocated at the UN a plan to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and other Arab. At the same time, Czechoslovakia was the only state that provided the Jewish Agency (later to become the Israeli government) with weapons, aircraft and training for the pilots of the Hagana – despite the arms embargo the UN had imposed – in the fighting against an invasion by six well-armed Arab militaries. Of course, it is necessary to emphasize that the price of the Czechoslovakian aid – which was hardly altruistic – was very high, and Israel paid, since it was fundamental to the survival of the young state.
Nowadays, the situation is somewhat reversed: Czech pilots have trained at Israel Air Force bases in the Negev desert, which has helped prepare them for conditions in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
A TURN in the mutual relations occurred after the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948. At first, military aid for the Jewish state received a temporary boost. However, Stalin’s brief policy of support for Israel (the USSR was the first country that recognized the independent State of Israel) came to an end after Israel allied itself with the West, and in the wake of the Stalin-Tito conflict, all Communist parties had to demonstrate their loyalty to Moscow.
Therefore, Czechoslovakia aborted military and economic deals with Israel.
The Soviet Union insisted also on an international purge of Communist Party representatives who were accused of participating in a “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy.” In 1952, 14 members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) – 11 of them Jews – were convicted; 11, including KSC general secretary Rudolf Slansky, were hanged, and three were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1951, in that anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist atmosphere, Mordechai Oren – a member of the left-wing Israeli party Mapam and a radical supporter of the USSR – was arrested as well, framed for “crimes against state security, of supporting Western Imperialism and being a Zionist agent.” The trial raised questions about Mapam’s pro-Soviet orientation. Oren was released from jail in 1956 as part of the “de-Stalinization policy.”
At the time of the Six Day War in June 1967, Czechoslovakia, together with the rest of the Warsaw Pact, cut all ties with Israel, and Israeli citizens were prohibited from entering the country until 1989 – the only exception being some members of the Communist Party of Israel. The rupture in relations led to virulent anti-Zionist campaigns in Czechoslovakia, which prompted hundreds of Jews to seek to emigrate. In 1975, Communist Czechoslovakia voted for the infamous UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which labeled “Zionism as racism.” The current Czech Communist Party has continued in a similarly virulent anti-Zionist agenda to delegitimize the State of Israel.
Moreover, the Communist regime supplied military equipment to Palestinian terrorist groups such as Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization was allowed to operate in Prague as the group representing the interests of the Palestinian people.
After the fall of communism in 1989, diplomatic relations were reestablished, and in April 1990, then- Czech president Vaclav Havel became the first leader from former Communist Central-Eastern Europe to visit Israel. Good relations with the Jewish state became symbolic of independent foreign policy as well as confirmation of the Czech Euro-Atlantic position.
Since then, the Czech Republic and Israel have seen themselves as friends and have built strong economic ties.
CZECHS HAVE been much more understanding of Israel’s position in combating its hostile Arab neighbors and terrorism. Unlike Western Europe, the Czech Republic does not have a large Muslim minority that creates political pressure on government. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in contrast to the EU position, it supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah.
However, current Czech foreign policy has not always been pro-Israel. For example, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the Czech Republic – president of the EU at the time – at first expressed support for the Gaza operation, and the Czech spokesperson rightly declared the Israeli actions to be defensive in character. But heavy criticism from some “old” EU member countries together with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who called to sever ties with the Czech Republic unless it retracted its statement, led the spokesperson to apologize for the “misunderstanding” and issue a new statement that became the official attitude of the EU.
The Czech Republic gained international attention when it became the only European country to vote against the PA’s unilateral statehood bid at the UN last November.
But has the Czech Republic always voted in favor of Israel at the UN? For instance, just one day after the PA status was upgraded, another six one-sided UNGA resolutions on “Palestine” received approval. On the first three resolutions, the Czech Republic abstained; on the remaining ones, it voted in favor.
These resolutions are unique in that they pertain to UN bodies devoted to a specific group of people; the CEIRPP is the only committee in the UN devoted to a specific people, the Palestinians.
Although a close friend of Israel, the Czech Republic has supported these biased resolutions, contrary to its own democratic values – meaning its foreign policy toward Israel is not very principled and should be changed.
The writer is a PhD student at Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic. He holds MAs in political science and security and strategic studies from the same university.