PRAGUE (JTA) — Karel Schwarzenberg is the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, just after Israel’s operation in Gaza began.
In the early days of the war, Schwarzenberg was asked why he was not more critical of Israel’s operation in Gaza.
“Why am I one of the few who have expressed understanding for Israel?” Schwarzenberg, 71, replied. “I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth.”
Schwarzenberg’s attitude toward Israel reflects his personal experience as well as Czech support for Israel. Schwarzenberg’s father had close ties to Jewish businessmen and frequently was a guest at B’nai B’rith events in Prague. Israel’s first embassy office in Czechoslovakia — one of the first Israeli embassies in the world — was opened in the home of Schwarzenberg’s parents on Prague’s Vorsilska Street in May 1948.
Last week, Schwarzenberg led an E.U. mission to the Middle East and met with Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Egyptian leaders in a bid to secure a cease-fire.
Although no cease-fire resulted, his team did help to achieve the daily three-hour cessation of Israeli military action to enable Gazans to receive humanitarian supplies.
Israelis have cheered the Czech Republic’s assumption of the E.U. presidency, but it has been received less warmly in the Arab world.
As Schwarzenberg was leaving for the Middle East last week, the Czech office of the E.U. presidency mistakenly released a statement calling Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza a “defensive, not offensive” action.
Schwarzenberg quickly corrected the statement to adhere more closely to the traditional E.U. line: that Hamas should stop firing rockets and Israel should end its military action to spare Palestinian civilians. But the original statement, which was blamed on an inexperienced government spokesman, caused an uproar among Arab and E.U. diplomats.
The bowtie-wearing, pipe-smoking Schwarzenberg — probably the most pro-Israel foreign minister in the 27-country European Union — belongs to a prominent Central European aristocratic dynasty and is an actual prince.
A member of the Green Party and a close confidant of Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, Schwarzenberg spent 50 years living in exile in Austria during the Communist rule of Czechoslovakia and was a key supporter of the dissident movement from abroad.
JTA interviewed Schwarzenberg on Jan. 8 at the Czech Foreign Ministry in Prague. The following Q & A was adapted from that interview.
JTA: The Red Cross recently came out with a report accusing Israel of failing to help civilians in Gaza. In the first week of January, Israel shelled a U.N. school in Gaza, killing dozens. The war is not looking good for Israel’s image, is it?
Schwarzenberg: No, and it will become worse each day. Because to wage a war in a densely inhabited area means always an unacceptable level of collateral damage. I know at one side that Israel tries to warn people in advance to prevent this, but it’s inevitable and therefore we are urging Israel to accept a cease-fire because as long as war goes on, this will always happen.
JTA: Based on your trip to the region, what was the main obstacle to a cease-fire agreement?
Schwarzenberg: To find a modus to stop the smuggling of rockets and arms into the Gaza Strip because Israel insists this has to stop or they will have to clean Gaza of Hamas, which is nearly an impossible task. For the moment there are more than 900 tunnels; the bulk of them are used for smuggling.
JTA: Who is going to close them and when?
Schwarzenberg: It needs some time. I think the important thing is that there is an agreement between Israel, Egypt and probably some other states in assisting Egypt with all preventative measures.
JTA: What makes the Egyptian-French plan for a cease-fire the most likely, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to believe?
Schwarzenberg: It’s not only a French plan; we worked all together with the E.U. Egypt, understandably, after its colonial past, isn’t willing to accept any foreigners to be present and active on its soil. That’s a problem. For the moment we are working on the technical means of finding out where there is a tunnel 50 meters below the ground.
JTA: Do you believe Israel has the right to disable Hamas’ military capacity after seven years of Hamas firing rockets onto Israeli civilians?
Schwarzenberg: Israel has the right to defend itself and to stop any attacks on its territory. The means are open to discussion. But we course have to realize that with conventional military means, you never are able to entirely stop Hamas. We probably can’t convince Hamas to stop, but we can stop the supply of weapons. As long as they don’t have a supply, they have to stop.
JTA: Critics of European diplomacy, including former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, say E.U. efforts on Gaza are “embarrassingly chaotic.” For instance, your Mideast trip coincided with that of Sarkozy. Are Middle Eastern leaders confused about who speaks for Europe?
Schwarzenberg: Fischer seemed to think that the visit of the French president was problematic, but we managed to coordinate our actions. We all met together in Ramallah.
JTA: Given France’s power and influence relative to that of the Czech Republic, isn’t Sarkozy in a better position to get a cease-fire agreement than you are, even though you hold the E.U. presidency?
Schwarzenberg: France being a great power and already being engaged in the Mediterranean has a special interest there. They are well qualified. If we are able to save the lives of even 10 people, it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit. We have to achieve a cease-fire and get humanitarian aid to the Gaza strip. This is the important thing.
JTA: Journalists and diplomats across Europe accuse you of being too pro-Israel.
JTA: So you agree? You are pro-Israel?
Schwarzenberg: It’s perfectly true. I don’t deny it. I am a lifelong friend of Israel, which goes back to my childhood when my father first took me to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which was not yet a tourist site. He taught me about Jewish history. My first visit to Israel was in 1964. Of course, yes, I am a friend of Israel, which doesn’t exclude that as the president of the European Union I am happy to put away my personal views and speak for the 27 countries of the E.U. Especially as a friend, you have to tell your friend when he makes a mistake. It’s even in the Bible. There is a famous quotation, “If your brother does wrong, go to him and tell him.” Therefore, as a friend of Israel, I am convinced you have to accept a cease-fire because it is destroying the reputation of Israel.
JTA: Is Israel using disproportionate force? Many other European leaders and U.N. officials have used that phrase.
Schwarzenberg: I never use the word because I am not a judge. I am somebody who tries to achieve humanitarian aid and somebody who tries to achieve a cease-fire, not the judge of what actions are proportionate or disproportionate.