Zeman invitation to Israeli president puts spotlight on Czech attitude to Gaza conflict

Rafah refugee camp, Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014, photo: CTK

President Miloš Zeman’s invitation to the recently elected President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, to visit Prague has put the spotlight on the Czech Republic’s position on the Gaza conflict. While Czech foreign policy makers have backed the invitation despite its controversial timing, some critics are calling for a more balanced Czech stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rafah refugee camp,  Gaza Strip,  August 4,  2014,  photo: CTK
The Czech Republic has long been one of Israel’s closest allies in the EU. The special relationship between the two countries goes back to the interwar period, and was eagerly revived after the fall of communism. In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said Israel had no better friend in Europe than the Czech Republic.

Those close ties have been confirmed by the news that President Miloš Zeman has extended an invitation for an official visit to the Czech Republic to the recently elected president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who has accepted, according to Mr Zeman’s spokesman.

However, the invitation comes at a time when Israel finds itself under international pressure over its controversial actions in Gaza. Some 1,900 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli operation while around 67 Israelis have died, mainly soldiers.

The Czech foreign minister, Lubomír Zaorálek of the Social Democrats, is considered less pro-Israeli than his right-of-centre predecessors. But his first deputy, Petr Drulák, has backed the presidential invitation.

Reuven Rivlin,  photo: Itzike,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I believe that precisely in such difficult times a dialogue needs to be maintained; this is particularly true for countries that consider themselves to be friends, such as the Czech Republic and Israel.”

The Czech Foreign Ministry has officially expressed “deep concern” over the developments in Gaza. In a statement from July 29, the ministry also deplored the high number of civilian casualties.

However, President Miloš Zeman, an outspoken critic of Islam, has made no such comments. “It cannot be tolerated that missiles are being constantly fired at any country,” his spokesman said on Wednesday in the only comment offered by the head of state since the start of the latest hostilities.

Šádí Shanaah, a Czech-Palestinian analyst with the Prague-based think tank Glopolis, says Mr Zeman’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply ideological.

“I think he looks at is as a sort of cosmic clash between good and evil, a struggle between an enclave of European civilization and barbaric Muslims, which does not make any sense because the conflict is not religious.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“It’s actually quite paradoxical because Mr Zeman, who considers himself to be a left-wing politician, is now backing one of the most right-wing Israeli governments in history.”

On Thursday, speaker of the Czech lower house Jan Hamáček, of the Social Democrats, entered the debate. He said that unlike the previous Czech government, the current cabinet would not automatically approve of every move taken by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.