Czech FM, a staunch Israel ally, pans annexation, sparking internal row

Country’s president, PM denounce op-ed in which Tomáš Petříček and former top diplomat argue that annexing West Bank would raise questions about Israel’s future as a democracy

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Czech Republic's Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Europa building in Brussels, January, 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Czech Republic's Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Europa building in Brussels, January, 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The Czech Republic’s Foreign Minister on Saturday came out against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, but drew rebukes from the country’s prime minister and president, who said it did not represent the government’s view.

In an op-ed published in the Pravo daily newspaper, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, Culture Minister Lubomír Zaorálek and senior MP Karel Schwarzenberg affirmed their country’s strong alliance with the Jewish state, but argued that the new government in Jerusalem’s annexation plan was not only a grave and unacceptable violation of international law but also raises serious questions about the future of Israel as a democracy.

Shortly after the 900-word article appeared, the country’s prime minister, Andrej Babis, distanced himself from the piece, saying he was not consulted before its publication.

Determining foreign policy is the prerogative of the entire government and therefore it is “unacceptable” for Petříček and Zaorálek to voice their opinion on such an important matter without having first discussed with their colleagues, he told reporters.

Czech President Milos Zeman speaking at a reception in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday at Prague Castle, April 25, 2018 (Facebook)

Czech President Milos Zeman — known as a staunch supporter of Israel’s former right-wing governments — issued a formal statement denouncing the op-ed as disruptive of Prague’s relations with Jerusalem and Washington.

“This article is a denial of the current foreign policy of the Czech Republic towards the State of Israel,” his spokesperson Jiří Ovčáček said.

The Czech Republic has long been one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe. In November 2012 it was the only European state to vote against non-member state status for “Palestine” at the UN General Assembly. In November 2018, Zeman ceremoniously opened the so-called Czech House in Jerusalem, which was billed by Prague as the “first step” of relocating the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital.

In the op-ed, the authors paid tribute to the historical friendship between the countries and current “strategic partnership” between the Czech Republic and the Jewish State, but stressed that they view it as their “political and civic responsibility” to clearly state their “explicit and critical position” on annexation.

So far, the country has not formally expressed its views on Israel’s annexation plans, which have drawn harsh rebuke from several other European countries.

Under a coalition deal reached between Netanyahu’s Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israel’s new government can begin moves toward annexing West Bank settlements and the entire Jordan Valley under guidelines laid out in the US-proposed peace plan, starting July 1.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek in Jerusalem, on June 8, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Petříček has been Prague’s top diplomat since 2018, Schwarzenberg held the foreign minister post from 2010 to 2013 and Zaorálek was in the role from 2014 to 2017.

In Saturday’s op-ed, the three noted that the international community, including the Czech Republic and the US, has long affirmed the “inevitability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But the peace proposal issued by the White House earlier this year seems to be headed in “a different direction,” they note. Territorial concessions in the so-called Deal of the Century would make the establishment of a Palestinian state practically impossible, the three men went on.

Israel’s Ambassador in Prague Daniel Meron, left, accompanies Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 13, 2018 (Twitter)

“It is a matter of principle: the acquisition of territory by force is explicitly forbidden by the UN Charter… Human rights and humanitarian implications of the foreseen annexation seem to be at stake as well, and these could be burdensome,” they wrote.

While the plan envisions negotiations toward a Palestinian state or other political entity on some 70 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have rejected it as the basis for talks.

Neither Israel nor the US have yet explained the status of the Palestinians in territories that would become part of sovereign Israel, or to those who will remain in the remaining parts of the West Bank, who they said will be left with without hope for their own state, the op-ed’s authors charged.

“What will happen to Israel’s democracy if the state is comprised of inhabitants of a first and a second category?”

Karel Schwarzenberg, the leader of the center-right TOP 09 party, visits Yad Vashem in 2008. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The three authors — two Social Democrats and one from the center-right — acknowledged that there are “several problems on the Palestinian side too,” such as the fact that Gaza is ruled by the Hamas terrorist organization. “We have always called on Palestinian leaders to be active and constructive in peace negotiations. Yet, at present the Palestinians are not the ones considering a unilateral move that grossly violates international law,” they wrote.

Israel is a “rare example of democracy in the Middle East,” but West Bank Palestinians do not benefit from this democracy, they went on. The leadership in Ramallah has missed chances to reach a peace agreement with Israel, but this does not mean that they can now “be deprived of fertile lands — key to the establishment of any form of future Palestinian state.”

The need to keep international law was not only a subject for academic debates or chatter in cafes, the three politicians continued. Indeed, its is crucially important “for the security and the very existence of states, especially smaller ones such as the Czech Republic,” they posited, noting the country’s own history of occupation (by the Nazis and later the Soviets).

“The principles and values ​​in question simply cannot be bent according to who they apply to,” they wrote. “They must apply to everyone equally.”

Israel’s ambassador in Prague, Daniel Meron, declined to comment for this article.

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