Continued settlement expansion creates the impression that Israel is not interested in peace, even if there are good arguments as to why some housing projects in East Jerusalem are not a real impediment to a two-state agreement, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister said Wednesday.
At the same time, Lubomír Zaorálek said his government does not intend to recognize a Palestinian state in the absence of a negotiated peace treaty.
“There is a feeling that the current [Israeli] government has not devoted time and energy to the peace process and the two-state solution and is not willing enough to talk and find a way out of this crisis,” Zaorálek told The Times of Israel in Jerusalem.
New Israeli constructions beyond the pre-1967 lines “torpedo the process” to reach a negotiated two-state solution, he said. Announcements of new settlement plans create the “feeling that there is no real serious interest to find a common solution” in the pursuit of peace. Outside observers are confused about Israel’s ongoing settlement activity and are unable to understand the logic behind it, he added.
“It’s important what kind of image Israel now has in Europe. This image is deteriorating,” Zaorálek warned. Improving Israel’s reputation will require “concrete steps” such as an immediate resumption of peace negotiations, the reconstruction of Gaza and the end of settlements, according to the Social Democratic politician and former philosophy professor.
Israeli authorities recently sped up several construction projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which all have been criticized broadly by the international community. On Wednesday, Jerusalem’s Local Planning and Building Committee approved building permits for 306 housing units in the Ramot and Har Homa neighborhoods. On Monday, the committee had approved the construction of 500 apartments in the capital’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood.
Prague is considered one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the international arena. In 2012, the Czech Republic was the only European Union member state to vote against granting “Palestine” nonmember state observer status at the United Nations.
No unilateral recognition of Palestine, or Jewish state
During a speech to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on Wednesday morning, Zaorálek said his government does not currently intend to make any “strategic changes” to its Middle East policies. “We may, however, diversify our positions more and look for other tactical options,” he said.
The Czech Republic does not intend to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state, as Sweden did last week, Zaorálek clarified. Such a move, without Jerusalem’s agreement, would be neither effective nor useful, he said. “I can’t imagine that it would calm down the situation here. We would like to recommend to both sides to refrain from any steps which would escalate the situation here and maybe to find steps that would create a better atmosphere and calm down the situation.”
Still, Zaorálek refused to endorse Israel’s demand that it be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state, saying that unilateral declarations are not useful in a conflict that needs to be solved through negotiations.
During his visit to the region, Zaorálek was scheduled to meet with senior Israeli officials and their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah. He will try to “press on both sides to refrain from steps that will escalate the situation,” he told The Times of Israel.
In his speech at the King David, Zaorálek said bilateral relations between Prague and Jerusalem are “excellent” and endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense. “We also understand very well the dangers Israel is constantly facing and perceive the ever-changing and ever-worsening security environment of the region.”
The Czech government knows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “surely not the worst” conflict in the Middle East, he added. “We also do not believe that when it is solved, all others will automatically come to conclusion. Yet it is the longest burning and the most medialized conflict, and if eventually solved it may ease the way to dealing properly with the others.”
The “most problematic and explosive issue” peace is Israel’s insistence on building over the Green Line, Zaorálek declared. While he is aware of many arguments in defense of the settlements, he said, he reasoned that they prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state, which will eventually prove detrimental to Israel’s security.
“If we want and we may say we need a viable Palestinian state it has to be contiguous and it must have enough of territory to establish working economic structure there. Settlements scattered all around the West Bank simply do not allow for this,” he said. “And if we do not have a Palestinian state we can hardly ask the Palestinians to end the conflict and to confirm and help create Israeli security.”
Israelis like to argue that construction in the settlement blocs — which Israel intends to keep under any future peace deal — are not really obstacles to reaching an agreement. “Yet most of the world, and unfortunately I must stress here that it is most of the world, views it as such,” Zaorálek said.
Concluding his talk, the Czech foreign minister addressed reality and perception of Israel’s settlement activity. Today’s world is “completely penetrated by the ever-present media and sustained by a sound bite,” he said. “As a result of this the perception of a fact is much stronger than the fact itself.” As someone who grew under Communism, he understands “very well how the weapon of propaganda works,” he said. “And I am able along with many from our part of the continent to look at the media reports critically. Yet I cannot change the way they influence the perception of the masses.”