Text size
related tags

Ever since January 1, the European Union has been ruled by a prince. This was stated recently by the French daily Le Monde, which also described that prince, scion of a noble Austro-Hungarian family, as a man of rare and courtly manners: He dresses elegantly, often wearing a bow tie, and smokes a wooden pipe; he nurtures a regal mustache and kisses women's hands with archaic gallantry.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has been at the helm of the European Union's agenda for nearly a month now in his capacity as current President of the EU Council of Ministers. He is 71 years old, a Catholic by religion, a conservative by habit, a liberal by leanings, identified with the left and a representative of the Green Party in the Senate of the Czech Republic. In Israel, they are pleased to add to this unique mix that he is "a true friend."

Going by his most recent statements and the descriptions in Jerusalem of his activities, one might have formed the impression that here we have a "Zionist prince:" He was active in initiating a Euro-Israeli conference to advance Israel's integration into the EU, he has declared that Operation Cast Lead was a "defensive measure" and he has rejected calls in Europe for investigation of "war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces."

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Schwarzenberg spoke at length about the shared history and the close ties that developed over the years between Jews and Czechs.

He recalled the warm attitude of the first Czech president Tomas Masaryk, and that of his friend and former patron Vaclav Havel; the arms shipments to Israel during the War of Independence; the key role that Jews played in Czech lands beginning in the Middle Ages and the fact that his country was, "the only one in the Soviet bloc that did not follow an anti-Semitic policy."

When Hitler celebrated the Anschluss in Vienna in 1938, one of his relatives - Adolf Schwarzenberg - went out and hung a black flag on the facade of his home in Prague.

When the Nazis forbade socializing with Jews, he opened the garden of his home and hung up a sign saying "Welcome, Jews." Another of his uncles, Jindrich Schwarzenberg, was sent to Buchenwald for his opposition to the Nazis.

Karel Schwarzenberg himself savors a happier anecdote that has been with him for many years.

"This was at the end of January 1948," he said. "I was a boy of 10 at the time. A high-ranking Israeli delegation came to Prague and I was sent by my parents to show them one of the houses that the family owned. The delegation signed a contract with my parents to rent the building, which became Israel's first embassy in Czechoslovakia.

On Israel's first Independence Day the Star of David flag was raised on its facade - that was the first Israeli flag ever flown in our country."

When he was asked during Operation Cast Lead why he supported Israel, he replied with astonishment, "The question should be why am I one of the few who are evincing understanding for Israel's motives. The answer is that I enjoy the luxury of speaking the truth."

Despite all this, Schwarzenberg learned quite quickly that his role as current president requires that he present an additional, more complex "truth," one that will also represent his 26 partners in the EU.

The statement by the Czech government spokesman to the effect that Israel was conducting a "defensive war" was amended within 24 hours and called for both sides to stop the shooting.

"As the foreign minister of the Czech Republic I could express myself more easily, I could express the opinions of my government and my own personal opinions," Schwarzenberg now acknowledges. "Since January 1 and my taking up of the rotating presidency I must fulfill the role and express the opinion of the mainstream of Europe."

This is also the key to understanding the unusual visit here by the Czech prime minister and five leaders of Europe's larger countries - Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain - immediately after the cease-fire. While in Israel the visit was depicted as a "rare demonstration of support," Schwarzenberg says that this was only the stated aim.

Another aim was to create pressure on Israel to lift the siege on Gaza and open the crossing points. In this context and when it is a matter of friends, says Schwarzenberg, the "luxury of speaking the truth" becomes "an obligation."

"I must present my position frankly, to the effect that with regard to the Palestinian population the policy of the State of Israel is mistaken," he said. "The siege and the transformation of the entire population into a hostage of Hamas is a boomerang policy that is manifested in the besieged population identifying more and more with Hamas."

No extremists - or else

The current president of the EU Council hastens to stress, "the tremendous importance of trans-Atlantic relations," and when asked about the recent statement by United States President Barack Obama about conducting an "aggressive policy" in the Middle East, he has no problem signing on to it. Moreover, he also jibes naturally to the words of his counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in response to the statement by Obama.

"I hope that the population of Israel will be wise enough not to vote for extremists and bring them into the Knesset," he says with regard to the expected election of Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in the approaching elections and the impressive gains made by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman. "A policy that will permit the expansion of the settlements - especially after what has now happened in Gaza - will be disastrous for Israel's standing in Europe and presumably in the United States as well. Wars do, of course, have psychological repercussions, but it is my fervent hope that the moderate parties will, after all, be the ones that win in the election."

If this does not happen he warns, "The defense of Israel's interests - something that is dear to my heart - will become a pretty hopeless case to promote."

When he is asked to speak concretely and say whether there is a danger to the upgrading of relations with Europe, of which some of his colleagues demanded the suspension during the fighting in Gaza, he replies in the affirmative.

Will the improvement of our trade and economic agreements and the expansion of the joint diplomatic framework indeed be suspended?

"In every conflict in the world it is sometimes important to strike and obtain victories but ultimately historical experience shows us that dialogue is essential, even with the cruelest of enemies," he says.

He does not have magic solutions.

"It all depends of course on the abandonment of terror, but the close relationship that has developed between Hamas and the Gazan population teaches that one day it will be necessary to accept [Hamas]."

In the meantime, he recommends to Israel that it maintain "indirect relations" with the organization, "which are sometimes very effective. This has been proven historically. Israel too is experienced in this. There are, after all, contacts at a certain level, somewhere, even between Iran and Israel."

Does Israel have indirect relations with Iran?

"I am certain that this is so, even though no one - in Israel or in Iran - is going to declare this officially."

The response of Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovsky, January 27

In Adar Primor's interview with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, the minister is quoted as saying regarding the upcoming parliamentary election in Israel: "I hope that the population of Israel will be wise enough not to vote for extremists and bring them into the Knesset."

The minister empowered me to acknowledge the direct quote about extremists. However, he emphatically denies and rejects as an unwarranted interpretation that it be linked to any particular political party or any particular politician. In his three visits to Israel over the last six weeks the Minister met and exchanged views repeatedly with Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Livni, Defense Minister Barak and the leader of the opposition Netanyahu. Based on those discussions, he has no reasons to regard any of these eaders of the mainstream political parties as extremists.

Michael ZantovskyAmbassador of the Czech Republic in Israel