Zeman under fire after Arafat "Hitler" comparison in Israeli paper

Milos Zeman, photo CTK

Prime Minister Milos Zeman is not a man to mince his words - his reputation for showering opponents with vitriolic abuse goes unchallenged in Czech politics. Until now he has reserved that abuse for critics at home and in neighbouring countries such as Austria, but on Monday - during an official visit to Israel - he waded into the Middle East conflict with a vengeance, with an Israeli newspaper claiming he had drawn parallels between the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Adolf Hitler. Rob Cameron has more.

Milos Zeman,  photo CTK
Mr Zeman's latest inflammatory comments came in an interview with the English version of Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper. The Czech Prime Minister said in the 1930s Hitler was the biggest terrorist in the world, and there was no call to conduct negotiations with him then, just as negotiations should not be conducted with terrorists today. The Ha'aretz reporter asked Mr Zeman whether he was comparing Hitler with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. "Of course," he was quoted as saying.

His comments have drawn an angry reaction from the Palestinians, and have been described by the European Union's Council of Ministers as "unacceptable." But Mr Zeman himself says he was misquoted, telling Czech Radio he did not say "of course" but "I don't want to name names."

The explanation has done little to satisfy Mr Zeman's critics, who say the comments are the latest in a recent flurry of highly undiplomatic outbursts that are harming the Czech Republic's interests abroad. Jan Urban is a commentator for Radio Free Europe.

"Mr Zeman is going out of his way to present the Czech Republic as the most irresponsible and least trustworthy candidate country for European Union entry. Never in the history of Czechoslovakia since 1918 and the Czech Republic since 1993 have we had anybody saying such stupid and irresponsible things as he's been saying in the last two months. I just think that he really should close his mouth and disappear from politics."

Milos Zeman,  photo CTK
Mr Zeman already plans to disappear from politics - he is not standing for re-election at the June elections. Observers say his recent series of outbursts - just days ago he compared Austria's far-right politician Joerg Haider to Hitler - are signs that he no longer really cares what he says. But with just four months to go until the elections, his Social Democrat colleagues are probably praying he exercises a little more restraint.