Why is the Czech Republic supporting Israel

  • Kateřina Velíšková
  • 11.1.2019 07:12

Observers in Western Europe are sometimes baffled by what they view as Eastern European favouritism towards Israel and its policies. The Czech Republic, described by the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as the “best friend of Israel in Europe”, seems to be at the very front of this trend. The reasons for this geopolitical course range from similar historical narratives to strategic partnerships on trade and military cooperation. The real question is whether this pro-Israeli course of the Eastern European states will eventually converge with Western Europe, which is arguably growing more critical towards Israel, or whether the position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become one more dividing line between the East and the West of Europe.

A significant part of the Czech relationship to Israel is based on the somewhat romanticized notion of a similar historical origin of the two states. When the first Czechoslovak president Tomas G. Masaryk visited Palestine in 1920 as one of the first statesmen to do so, he was in part looking for inspiration for his own nation building. Even today, the reading of history suggesting that both nations had to overcome some of the same obstacles to build independent nation states is common among the Czechs.

Similarly, the fact that Czechoslovak military aircraft and weapons imports played an important role in the 1948 war, in which the state of Israel was established, is well-known in the Czech Republic and most people view it with a sense of pride and often downplay the role of Stalin’s geopolitics in this enterprise. Of course, these policies were quickly reversed and the Eastern Bloc (except for Romania) cut its ties with Israel following the 1967 war. But even in this period of government sponsored antagonism, many of the Czechoslovak intellectuals remained deeply interested in Israel and Jewish history in general.

 

A significant part of the Czech relationship to Israel is based on the somewhat romanticized notion of a similar historical origin of the two states.

 

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the newly established Czech Republic quickly reversed its policies to a more Israel-friendly course. This shift was partly built on the above mentioned pre-Communist historical foundations and partly on the whole process of geopolitical repositioning of the former Eastern Bloc countries. These post-Communist countries generally became politically aligned with the US, a traditional ally of Israel, which further solidified the Eastern European policy shift in the same direction.

Nowadays, the Czech Republic is arguably viewed as the strongest ally of Israel within the EU and it has also repeatedly supported Israeli positions in the UN and other international bodies, often in conflict with other EU states. The two countries have built extensive cooperation in many fields including trade and commerce, science and education, military and high-tech industries.

The Czech Republic also lacks a larger Muslim population common in the West of Europe and expressing pro-Palestinian views is practically a nonexistent phenomenon in the Czech public discourse. Besides that, the Czech Republic has one of the strongest anti-Muslim sentiments in the EU, which can also somewhat strengthen its inclination to the Israeli point of view on the region.

Politically, the Czech Republic has been toying with the idea of moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the precedent set by the US president Donald Trump in the spring of last year. One of the strongest proponents of such a move, the Czech president Milos Zeman, has recently visited Israel to open a Czech House (a cultural and commercial centre) in Jerusalem. Although the government is currently standing opposed to the embassy move, most likely because of the EU and its clear position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is certainly not out of the question that this action will take place in the near future.

 

Although it is true that the Czech Republic, together with some other Eastern European member states, have shifted the EU consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict towards a more mild middle-of-the-road practices, there may come a time where the EU might find it difficult to incorporate Czech political actions into its foreign policy.

 

The obvious question here is: what is the future of this relationship?  The strategic partnership with Israel has so far been quite advantageous for the Czech Republic, but at the end of the day, it cannot rival the benefits of a strong and unified EU foreign policy. Although it is true that the Czech Republic, together with some other Eastern European member states, have shifted the EU consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict towards a more mild middle-of-the-road practices, there may come a time where the EU might find it difficult to incorporate Czech political actions into its foreign policy. The first future scenario would therefore include a gradual shift of the Czech (and Eastern European) position to match the attitudes of Western Europe. This would most likely lead to more unified and stronger EU policies in the Middle East, something that the Union has been attempting for many years.

 

The second possible scenario therefore sees a growing East-West divide within the EU, which would manifest itself in many areas including the Middle Eastern Peace Process.

 

However, this deeply grounded positioning of the Czech Republic (and other Eastern European states) vis-à-vis Israel is not likely to change easily or just because of EU pressures. The second possible scenario therefore sees a growing East-West divide within the EU, which would manifest itself in many areas including the Middle Eastern Peace Process. If such a trend continues, the Czech Republic might find itself more and more isolated from the Western European EU states that seem to be growing more and more tired of Israel’s right-wing policies.

Admittedly, the Czech relationship to Israel is not the most important dividing line currently standing between the two camps within the EU. However, it is true that the differences across Europe already made the EU significantly weaker in its policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, if such a trend is to be overcome, it will undoubtedly require a deeper level of understanding of where each of the camps is coming from, for example the historical basis of the Czech relationship with the Jewish state.

About author: Kateřina Velíšková

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