“We lost Europe,” was the way one Foreign Ministry official put Thursday morning when Germany announced it would abstain on Palestinian non-member observer state status, rather than vote against it. Indeed, twelve European Union member states elected to abstain altogether — including the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Netherlands — while fourteen voted in favor, amongst them France, Spain, and Italy.
The only nation — not only in the European Union but across the entire continent — to vote with Israel and the United States and against enhanced Palestinian status was the Czech Republic, even while the other nations of eastern Europe abstained.
The Czech Republic and Israel have maintained good relations since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Dr Seán Hanley, Senior Lecturer in East European Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, believes that this is the result of an Atlanticist foreign policy outlook where the interests of the United States are also the interests of the Czechs.
Across central and eastern Europe, there is an especial appreciation for the United States’ role in the Cold War and their championing of NATO expansion beyond the Iron Curtain. “This perception is especially strong on the right of Czech politics and among politicians in the centre with connections to the dissident movement,” Hanley explained, and can in part account for Václav Havel’s support for the liberation of Iraq in 2003 and more recent Czech lobbying to host part of the United States’ missile defence shield on their soil.
Czech history very much influences the direction of its foreign policy in the Middle East. Rejection of the Palestinian UN cause, for example, is a reaction to the support the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic gave the PLO for decades, including recognition at its declaration of statehood in 1988. Moreover, for the current government — a fiscally conservative, centre-right administration led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas — and for Czechs of a certain generation, there is a meaningful sense of common cause with Israel, tied to the belief that there is a clear historical parallel between her current situation and the state Czechoslovakia found itself in during the years leading up to the Second World War.
Nečas has spoken openly of the “special feeling” he has for Israel, “that of a small nation surrounded by enemies. We remember our situation in the 1930s, when the small democratic Czechoslovakia had neighbours that wanted to destroy it or take part of our territory.” There is an admiration, Hanley asserts, for the way in which Israel has the capacity to defend itself from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, augmented by memories of the carving up of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938, and the years of Soviet domination made evident not only in 1945 but 1968 as well.
The Czech Republic is not only lockstep with Israel on Palestinian statehood — “The long-term Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved only through direct negotiations of the two parties,” Nečas has stated — but also on the Iranian threat, noting its “concern” with its uranium enrichment programme “even as it threatens to destroy Israel”. The Czechs are also opposed to boycott, divestment, and sanctions — the government “fundamentally rejects” such attempts at “delegitimisation”.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that “Israel has no better friend in Europe than the Czech Republic. There’s no place in Europe where Israel’s challenges are better understood.” The strength of Czech-Israeli relations is the one beacon of light for Avigdor Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry, one which has done so much to alienate so many allies in Europe.