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Czechs support Israel

Rob Cameron / cdDecember 7, 2012

The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote against Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly. This cements the friendship Prague enjoys with Israel. DW takes a look at the relationship.

Image: picture alliance / dpa

By a margin of 138 to nine (with 41 abstentions) the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week to upgrade Palestinian status to that of a "non-member observer state."

While the vote was met with thunderous applause inside the assembly, a few very notable pairs of hands were not clapping. Both Israel and America strongly opposed the decision, saying it would push the peace process backwards. Also dissenting were Canada, a handful of tiny states including Micronesia and Palau, and finally - alone in Europe - the Czech Republic.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a special visit to the Czech Republic this week to personally thank the Czechs for voting against the Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu called the Czech Republic "Israel's best friend in Europe," and believes their relationship goes even deeper.

Benjamin Netanjahu in Prag
Israel supporters gave Netanyahu a warm welcome in Prague, blowing religiously symbolic 'shofars'Image: Michael Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

A shared history?

The special relationship between Czechs and Israelis goes back decades, Netanyahu believes, to the beginning of the state of Israel and beyond. "I think the people of Israel and I personally admire the Czech Republic and the history of the Czech people," Netanyahu said.

"We're familiar with it, and we feel a natural kinship to it. Not only because you too were surrounded by forces that were hostile to freedom, and you went through your own struggle, but you have emerged from a period of darkness, restored liberty, built up your society and you're quickly catching up on the years that were lost. For us, for the Jewish people, we lost thousands of years."

In the early years WWII Czechoslovakia was a strong supporter of Israel, supplying weapons, aircraft and training to the nascent Jewish state even after the communist takeover of Prague in 1948. Ezer Weizman, onetime commander of the Israeli Air Force and Israel's seventh president, learned to fly fighter planes at an airfield in southern Czechoslovakia and within weeks was taking part in Israel's first fighter mission of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Understanding this relationship, says Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, is key to understanding why Czechs tend to sympathize with Israel.

"They say - look what the Israelis are doing. If we had been fighting in 1938, after the so-called Munich Agreement, or appeasement, maybe there would have been no World War Two."

Against the grain

The decision to vote contrary to European thinking on Palestine - 14 EU countries voted in favor of upgrading Palestinian membership - cemented the Czechs' reputation as a lone staunch supporter of Israel in Europe.

That sympathy has often gotten Czech politicians into trouble. In 2002, former Prime Minister Milos Zeman famously compared Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans - Germans living in Czech territories prior to World War Two - and even suggested there were similarities between Yasser Arafat and Hitler. He said he was misquoted, but his government was forced to apologize for the remarks.

Benjamin Netanjahu in Prag
Netanyahu (left) met Necas in Prague on ThursdayImage: picture alliance / dpa

More recently, the Czech presidency of the European Union was embroiled in controversy within days of taking over the EU in January 2009, when a government spokesman described Israel's bombardment of Gaza as a ‘defensive' action. European partners were outraged. The Czech government was quickly forced to clarify the remarks.

Verbal blunders aside, few now doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu is right to describe the Czech Republic as Israel's best friend in Europe. Unafraid of the ire of their EU partners or global public opinion, Czechs appear determined to support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.