Czech PM Remarks Strain EU and Arab Relations

The Czech Republic's relations with Europe and the Arab world, and particularly with Germany, have been severely strained by Prime Minister Milos Zeman's comparison of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler in an interview with Ha'aretz on Sunday.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman

The Czech Republic's relations with Europe and the Arab world, and particularly with Germany, have been severely strained by Prime Minister Milos Zeman's comparison of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler in an interview with Ha'aretz on Sunday.

Two days later, Zeman insisted that he had been misunderstood, that he never made such a comparison, and that he supports the EU's position on the conflict. But a tape of an interview he gave to Channel Two on Sunday reveals that he made the Arafat-Hitler comparison there as well.

The Ha'aretz interview provoked an immediate reaction. Egypt announced that it was postponing Zeman's visit , originally planned for next week. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa termed the comparison "irrational" and said it was something "the Arab states cannot accept."

PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the statement "shows stupidity and boorishness" - and that if any such comparison could be appropriate, it would be between Israel and the Nazis. "The severity of the Israeli occupation can only be compared to Nazi Germany," he said.

The EU moved even more swiftly to reject Zeman's statements, saying they did not accord with the EU's view of Arafat as a partner for peace. According to the German news agency DPA, EU leaders even warned that the statement could delay the Czech Republic's acceptance into the EU.

But the European response was prompted less by concern over developments in the Middle East than by a matter closer to home: a dispute between the Czech Republic and its German and Austrian neighbors.

Germany was already fuming at Zeman's recent statement that Germans, in what was then Czechoslovakia, constituted a "fifth column" prior to World War II, as well as his statements of support for Czechoslovakia's expulsion of three million Germans after the war. The leader of the German opposition, Edmund Stoiber, demanded a strong German response, and with elections later this year, the incumbent government could not afford to let the highly popular Stoiber dominate the issue. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer therefore pushed for a strong EU reaction.

And Austria, which has a long-running dispute with the Czech Republic over the latter's refusal to shut down a nuclear power plant near their mutual border, also seized the opportunity to discredit its foe.

Zeman's statements also caused a stir at home. President Vaclav Havel said he was deeply disturbed by the comparison, as it will increase tensions in the Middle East. And Czech journalists wondered whether Zeman, whose fondness for liquor is well-known, had not perhaps had a drop too much before the interview.

Zeman, an economist by profession, is known as a sharp-tongued, unconventional politician who likes to view himself as "one of the people." But he has already announced that he will not run for re-election later this year, and Czech analysts believe that encouraged him to speak more freely.

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