The relations between Israel and many Western European countries started to cool after the Six-Day War in 1967. The liberal, often leftist, European elites started to consider Israel to be an aggressor. the Jewish state, which for years was perceived as a weak David facing the powerful Arab world, had turned into a Goliath oppressing the Palestinians.
Western European countries started to criticize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank long before it became a hot topic in world diplomacy. Whereas in the US and Israel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was considered to be a terrorist organization, in the capital cities of many Western European states, the PLO was allowed to operate as the organization representing the interests of the Palestinian people. Israel, which was confronted with a growing number of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Palestinians, including the murderous attack against its athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, became more and more detached from many of the European countries.
The complicated relationships between Israel and individual European states have been reflected in EC/EU-Israeli relations. One of the first common initiatives under the EC banner, the Venice Declaration of 1980, acknowledged the Palestinians’ right for self-government. It set the tone for EC/EU Israeli relations for many years. Yet, during the last decade, many Israeli diplomats have become increasingly aware of the importance of the EU as a diplomatic player. Notwithstanding these suspicions, Israel started to look for ways to better communicate with the Europeans.
2004 Brings Israel New EU friends
EU enlargement in 2004 had an important impact on the EU position vis-à-vis the conflict in the Middle East. The new, formerly communist, members brought a new perspective based on a different experience. These countries did not have a post-colonial syndrome. Having had experience with communist totalitarian regimes, they were less willing to reconcile with the authoritarian regimes of the Arab countries in the Middle East. Moreover, as Moscow’s satellites, these countries had been forced to maintain close relations with the Arab world.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, good relations with Israel became a symbol of the formerly communist countries’ freedom and also a confirmation of their Atlantic position. The countries of the former Eastern Bloc were also much more willing to understand the Israeli position when dealing with the regional challenges. With vivid experiences from the Cold War, including Soviet invasions and exploitations, they tended to be less critical regarding Israel’s use of power. Last, but not least, the post-Communist countries did not have large Muslim minorities on their territories, which enabled them to form their Middle Eastern politics independently of political pressures from Muslim groups.
The Czech-Israeli special relationship
Among former communist countries, the Czech Republic has been considered one of the closest allies of Israel. In recent years, Prague has supported Israel even during events that precipitated a strong condemnation of the Jewish state among many EU countries, especially those from the Southern and Northern parts of Europe.
In 2006, during the summer war against Hezbollah, many of the European countries demanded an immediate ceasefire. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, called for the right of Israel to defend itself. During Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, the Czech Republic was one of the few countries in the EU that did not condemn the Israeli offensive in Gaza against Hamas. The Czech position was even more highlighted and criticized by many in the EU, since Prague was holding the presidency of the European Council and therefore was supposed to speak in the name of the whole EU.
The Czech plan to organize the EU-Israel summit at the end of the presidency, with the goal to upgrade the EU relations with the Jewish state, was then called off. Some members of the EU were against the deepening of relations with Israel without the progress in the Peace Process. The Czech plan did not materialize, yet, the “special relationship” between the Czech Republic and the Jewish state remains strong. In order to understand the deep roots of this closeness, one has to look back into history.
In the Czech Lands, relations between non-Jews and Jews were relatively uncomplicated. The Czech Jews belonged culturally either to the German or the Czech populations of the country, which, until 1945, was very multicultural. Both German- and Czech-speaking Jews were usually highly assimilated and were an integral part of the business, cultural and scientific elite of the Czech state.
In comparison to other places in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, the Czech elites were far less prone to an anti-Semitic stance. In fact, intellectual Philo-Semitism existed and influenced the policies of the country during the time of the First Republic (the period from 1918 until WW II). The most influential Czech of that time, the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was a strong supporter of Zionism and of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He was the first head of state who visited British Palestine in 1927.
For the Czechs, the Munich Pact is still one of the important events which forms their view on and understanding of the world affairs. In 1938, Czechoslovakia was forced to cede a significant part of its territory to Hitler’s Germany after Great Britain and France signed a pact with Germany and Italy. The fact that two great powers betrayed a small state in the middle of Europe in order to placate an aggressive Nazi regime left the Czechs with a bitter feeling of being betrayed and abandoned.
With such an experience, the Czechs partially identify themselves with the people of Israel. Not unlike Czechoslovakia of the 1930s, Israel is seen by the Czechs as the only democracy surrounded by non-democratic regimes. The Czechs are able to understand better Israeli skepticism vis-à-vis the idea that giving up of territory will automatically lead to a lasting peace.
Trauma of surrender
Israeli readiness to protect its territory even with the use of force and its unwillingness to rely on others in matters of security, which is in Western Europe often interpreted as aggressiveness and stubbornness, is understood in the Czech Republic. This country had a bad experience with Western powers, which in the 1930’s promised to guarantee its security. Yet, under pressure, they surrendered and sacrificed the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia and as a result, the well-equipped and trained Czechoslovak army was forced to capitulate.
The trauma of surrender contributed to the admiration of the Israeli ability to resist and fight back. For generations of Czechs that grew up under the shadow of Munich and lived through the time when Czechoslovakia lost its freedom again, this time under the Communist dictatorship in 1948 and 1968 respectively, Israel’s ability to defend itself has been a source of fascination.
Similarly, Israelis feel very positive about the Czechs. The Czechoslovak delegation to the UN special commission promoted the idea of the partition of Palestine in 1947 into a Jewish and Arab states. At the same time, the pilots of Haganah, the predecessor of the Israeli army, received their training in Czechoslovakia. One of those pilots, Ezer Weizmann, later became the Israeli president.
In 1948, Czechoslovakia was the first country which supplied the newly born Israel with arms—doing so in spite of an international embargo. The older generation of Israelis especially still sees this aid as having been one of the important factors that contributed to the victory of the Jewish state in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-9. However, this military aid was not purely altruistic, as Israel paid a significant amount of money for the weapons, which after WW II were plentiful in that part of Europe.
Although during Communism Czechoslovak-Israeli relations were cooled down, immediately after 1989, the relations were renewed and today, both countries see themselves more than just allies, but rather as friends. For Israel, the Czech Republic is a country which understands the geopolitical situation of the Jewish state and unlike some Western European countries is not hypocritically pacifistic. For the Czech Republic, Israel is a democratic country, whose security and well-being is important for world democracy and freedom.
Business and geopolitics
Moreover, both countries built strong economic ties. Israel as a country producing cutting-edge technology is a very attractive business partner for many Czech companies. On the other hand, since the EU represents the largest market for Israel, growing economic relations with the Czech Republic provide a good path for Israeli companies to enter the European market.
The warm relationship between the Czech Republic and Israel is built on a foundation of geopolitical and economic interests. What makes this relationship special is the sharing of basic values and a similar understanding of some of the challenges the world is facing today. The Czechs, compared to many other European nations, are less naïve and do not take a benevolent stance toward authoritarian regimes and the ensuing security challenges in Middle East. This is highly appreciated by the Israelis, who often see the Europeans as unwilling to understand their security challenges, and hypocritical, as Europeans on the one hand criticize Israel’s use of force, and on the other hand, rely on the United States to protect their security.
With the Middle Eastern peace process stalled, one can only hope that a close friendship between Israel and the Czech Republic will help Israelis better understand some of the European positions, and vice versa.