Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could not have found a more enthusiastic supporter of his policies than Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman.
Zeman, 57, who arrived in Israel on Saturday for a two-day official visit, is leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party and has been prime minister for four years. Yesterday, after meetings with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and President Moshe Katsav, Zeman dined with Sharon.
In an interview with Ha'aretz, the Czech leader said he had not come to Israel to promote business, but to express a sense of solidarity between two small countries. "We share a common fate," he said. "You, the Jews, were the first stage - that of the Holocaust - in the Nazi plan. The extermination of the Czech nation was supposed to have taken place in the second stage."
Without much use for diplomatic niceties, Zeman drew a parallel between Adolf Hitler and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat: "At the time, Hitler was the biggest terrorist in the world. Then, there was no call to conduct negotiations with him, just as today negotiations should not be conducted with terrorists," he said.
Are you comparing the head of the PA to Hitler?
"Of course. Indeed, it is not my duty to pass judgment on Arafat, but anyone who supports terrorism, anyone who sees terrorism as a legitimate means, anyone who uses terrorism that causes the death of innocent people is a terrorist in my eyes. The same goes for someone who finances terrorism."
About a week ago, Zeman elicited an angry reaction from Edmund Stoiber, the leader of the conservative opposition in Germany, by justifying the deportation of 3.5 million Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II. Zeman said that before and during the war, the German residents of his country had been Hitler's "fifth column."
Based on this same reasoning, should Israel carry out a transfer of the Palestinians?
"The expulsion of the Germans ... was a direct result of World War II. Before the war, the leaders of Czechoslovakia and the world should not have conducted negotiations with the German leaders ... and with Hitler to try to appease them. We should have said to them in English `Take it or leave it;' in other words, accept the proposal or you will be expelled."
And what should Israel say to the Palestinian?
"The same: `Take it or leave it.'"
Zeman found another common factor between Israel and his country - the condemnation of Joerg Haider, the leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party. The Czech Republic was one of the only other countries in the world, aside from Israel, to boycott Haider, who Zeman described last week as "a post-fascist leader."
Although Zeman defined his visit to Israel as one of solidarity, the Czech leader will also try to promote cooperation between the two countries, noting that the ties between the intelligence services of Israel and the Czech Republic are excellent. Zeman added that his country would like the Israel Air Force to purchase the Czech training aircraft, the LR-159, while the Czechs were considering upgrading their helicopters in Israel.
Zeman also hopes to see an expansion of the limited trade between Israel and the Czech Republic that totaled $88 million last year. In 2001, Israel imported goods and raw materials valued at $54 million from the Czech Republic, while Israeli exports to the republic amounted to $34 million. Zeman also wants Israel to increase its investments in infrastructure in the Czech Republic.
Israel also makes some contribution toward Czech tourism, one of the republic's main industries - 200,000 Israelis visited the Czech Republic in 2000.
Zeman can perhaps afford the luxury of being so blunt in his comments, unlike more run-of-the-mill statesmen - he has already announced he is retiring from politics. The Czech Republic will hold elections in four months, and Zeman has said he will not stand for the post of prime minister.
"I am not addicted to politics - only to cigarettes," he said, taking one from his packet.