Zeman claims he was misquoted on Arafat - but was he?

Milos Zeman, photo CTK

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman is facing a barrage of criticism from officials and media both home and abroad for his remarks about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat he made in interviews for an Israeli daily and Israeli television. Although Zeman claims he had been misquoted, his words sparked a diplomatic scandal which threatens to damage the Czech Republic's international reputation. Vladimir Tax has more:

Milos Zeman, photo CTK
The scandal involving Czech Prime Minister Zeman was triggered by interviews Mr Zeman gave to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz and Israeli television during his trip to Israel earlier this week. Mr Zeman was quoted in Ha'aretz as saying that the greatest terrorist in history had been Adolf Hitler. No country had negotiated with him, so, likewise, there should be no negotiations with terrorists today.

But then the daily quotes Zeman as saying, "Of course," when asked whether, in his opinion, this means that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can be compared to Hitler. Zeman later issued a statement saying he was misinterpreted and that the "Of course" had been part of a longer answer: "Of course, it is not my duty to judge Arafat." Nevertheless, on its website, Ha'aretz went on to publish a transcript of the interview which suggested that in the context of the whole interview, Mr Zeman made a clear link between the Palestinian leader and Adolf Hitler.

The content of Mr Zeman's interview with Israeli television was similar, and on Tuesday night, the Czech service of the BBC broadcast an extract from the interview which was conducted in English. Here, in response to the Israeli interviewer's question, Mr Zeman does seem to make the comparison with Hitler.

Israeli TV: "Do you imply that there are similarities between Hitler's Third Reich to Arafat's Palestinian Authority?"

Milos Zeman: "Of course, it is. First of all, let us define the terrorism. The terrorism I think is the political movement which uses the civic victim as a tool for political tasks. Let me finish by some English slogan. If it looks like a duck, if it goes like a duck, if it cries like a duck, and if it tastes like a duck, it is a duck."

The international community reacted to Mr Zeman's words with strong condemnation. The European Union said such language was not what it expected from a future member state. Later, though, the EU accepted Mr Zeman's explanation of the incident. A reaction from Arab nations was quick - a top Palestinian leader called Zeman's remarks racist and the League of Arab States said the Czech Prime Minister's views were biased and in direct opposition to European efforts to mediate a just solution to the Middle East conflict. The Egyptian government has asked for a planned visit by the Czech Prime Minister due on February 27 to be postponed.

The Czech Foreign Ministry has attempted to play down the incident, saying nothing had changed in the Czech Republic's policy towards the Middle East. Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said Mr Zeman's statements did not represent the official stand of the Czech government and he expressed the belief that the incident was "a misunderstanding possibly due to an ill-chosen phrase in English".

Meanwhile Czech President Vaclav Havel said he was deeply disturbed by what he called emotive and simplistic statements which could only fan tensions in the region. The Speaker of the Lower House Vaclav Klaus called Mr. Zeman's alleged remarks "totally absurd" and accused the Czech Prime Minister of seriously damaging Czech interests by his total lack of restraint.

What Mr Zeman really wanted to say remains unclear. Many observers have reacted with a degree of amusement, saying that next time Mr Zeman travels abroad, perhaps he should contemplate using the services of a professional interpreter.