Since late May, Czech politics has been experiencing a diversion of attention away from the coronavirus crisis. In an article published by the daily Právo, current Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček and his two predecessors, Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD, social democrats) and Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP09, liberal-conservative), expressed their reservations towards Trump’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine and the announced intention of the new Israeli Government to formally annex swathes of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The authors stopped short of proposing any specific measures and stuck to a rather cautious language while also stressing the need to respect international law and human rights obligations.
While such a move did not contradict the principles of the Czech foreign policy outlined in official documents, it still constituted a slight deviation from the Czech discourse regarding Israel and the Middle Eastern conflict that usually dominates the public sphere. The Czech Republic traditionally shies away from any criticism of Israeli policies and is regarded as one of the closest European supporters of the Jewish state on the international stage, whether in the UN or the EU. The uproar that the piece penned by Petříček (ČSSD), Zaorálek and Schwarzenberg caused is not just related to purely diplomatic matters, but also to the domestic ideological positions of the concerned parties and therefore reveals the current contours of the Czech debate on Israel and Palestine.
The wave of critical reactions to the “Ministers’ Article” (as it came to be known) reiterated a number of arguments that are well-known in the Czech discourse. The reactions of former Prime Minister Topolánek (ODS, civic democrats), Prime Minister Babiš (ANO), Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Vondráček (ANO, centre-right catch-all movement), and President Zeman stressed the need for continued, unquestioned support for Israel based on the long-term friendship between the two states. Moreover, these reactions warned that an open criticism of any Israeli policies might come close to a betrayal of the Jewish state and harm mutual relations with Israel as well with the US. Appreciating Trump’s plan as a good starting point for the debate on future negotiations, these reactions predictably blamed Palestinians or the EU for the lack of progress in the peace process. Furthermore, some also speculated that the ministers might have been influenced to formulate such a critique in some way by unnamed powers in Brussels, or even by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell,. These reactions, emerging often from rather conservative positions, followed a longstanding, predictable pattern of responses that argues against deviation from Israeli positions in any way.
However, the debate also articulated, more strongly than in previous years, a more nuanced stance, joining the scarce pro-Palestinian voices articulating their support for the “Ministers’ Article”. Hailing mostly from the centre-left and libral camp, as do Petříček, Zaorálek and Schwarzenberg, these commentators stated their discomfort with the annexation plan, Netanyahu’s policies, and a potential breach of international law, while also calling for a more reflective discussion on the situation in Israel and Palestine that would not be blinded by ideological one-sidedness.
The Czech debate over this article and Israeli annexation thus brings to the fore tensions between interpretations of Czech foreign policy values as they are professed, the country’s real foreign policy interests, and their translation into diplomatic moves. On the one hand, support for human rights, multilateralism and international institutions is still heralded as one of the priorities of Czech foreign policy in its strategic documents and official declarations. Furthermore, Czech foreign policy is necessarily realized within the EU framework and through cooperation with other European nations. On the other hand, as mentioned above, the uncritical support of Israel often puts Prague not just on a collision course with many (Western) European states, but also neglects the human rights abuses inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.
These somewhat schizophrenic attitudes and priorities also reflect some of the divisions within Czech political institutions when it comes to relations with the Israeli state. President Zeman is widely known for his unreservedly pro-Israeli sentiments, often accompanied by Islamophobic rhetoric. The Czech Parliament and most of the centrist and conservative political parties are also dominated by actors whose support for the Israeli state is a bedrock of their ideological foundations. Last year, the Czech Parliament adopted a resolution condemning antisemitism and implicitly also the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement (which is essentially non-existent in the country). In the recent discussion, strongly pro-Israeli statements were heard from representatives of both the opposition Civic Democrats and Christian Democrats as well as the ruling ANO party.
Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, forced to navigate Middle Eastern policy within the EU arena, often adopts more careful, nuanced stances, generally pro-Israeli attitudes are repeatedly translated into the tangible steps of Czech diplomacy. Among other such moves, the Czech Republic voted against recognizing Palestine as a member state of UNESCO in 2011 and it was the only EU country that opposed granting Palesting a non-member state status in the UN in 2012. It also repeatedly votes against the resolutions targeting Israel in the UN General Assembly. After the Trump administration moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the Czech Republic shied away from fully following suit, but symbolically supported the move by opening a new cultural centre in the city, while President Zeman repeatedly calls for the actual relocation of the embassy. Once again, during the US Embassy move, Czechs broke ranks with most of the other EU states when the Czech ambassador attended the official reception celebrating the move. More than once the Czech Republic, either alone or with other CEE states, has blocked any attempts of the EU to criticize Israeli moves.
Does the “Ministers’ Article” therefore signal a change in this long-term pro-Israeli position? Hardly, although one should mention that Israel’s recent plans are highly controversial and hotly debated even inside the country. Pro-Israeli commentators warned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu against the annexation, and Israeli army officials expressed concerns regarding its possible security fallout and the risk of increased violence aimed against Israelis. Jordanian politicians have started openly calling for abolishing the peace treaty with Israel, which has possibly severe strategic implications for Israel. The annexation plans also threaten to disrupt the slowly emerging relationships between Israel and other Arab countries. Even from the perspective of Israeli long-term interests, annexation could turn out to be hugely detrimental.
As such, the unflinching support of many Czech politicians and public figures for such a controversial policy constitutes a remarkable situation that illustrates a peculiar foreign policy orientation which in fact contradicts its professed goals of achieving both human rights protection and ensuring Israel’s security. Given the passionate tone adopted in many reactions to the “Ministers’ Article”, it is easy to assume that the subject matter – the Middle Eastern conflict – is somewhat secondary to the authors’ perceptions of themselves as the only true supporters of Israel in Europe and of their ideological struggles domestically. While the debate ended as quickly as it started, it nevertheless brought to light the political will for taking a more nuanced position towards Israel than before. This is unlikely to bring about any significant change in the domestic debate or in Czech foreign policy towards Israel in the short term, but it might signify certain fractures in the formerly staunchly pro-Israeli liberal camp.