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Better E.u.-israel Ties Possible Czech Takes over Parliament Post

October 21, 2004
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Earlier this year, the Czech Republic was not yet part of the European Union and Jana Hybaskova had yet to become a politician. Fast forward a few months and the former diplomat is taking up one of the key European Parliament roles affecting relations between the European Union and Israel.

Elected to the Parliament in June from the Czech Republic, one of the E.U.’s 10 new member-states, Hybaskova recently was chosen by her center-right EPP-EDD grouping to head the Parliament’s delegation to Israel.

The delegation’s role is to strengthen links between European and Israeli legislators and raise awareness about Israel within the European Union.

In recent years the committee has attracted a number of members with some kind of attachment to or support for the Jewish state, but it doesn’t function as a pro-Israel lobby.

In fact, under the chairmanship of former Portuguese Prime Minister Mario Suarez from 1995 to 1999, the committee generally was hostile to Israel and blocked rather than encouraged dialogue with the Jewish state. In the last Parliament, the delegation became more amenable for Israel under the chairmanship of Willy Goerlich of Germany.

But the fact that the four-year post is now held by someone with strong trans-Atlantic convictions — and from a country with one of the best relationships with Israel in Europe — could end up having significance in a legislature many Israelis perceive as hostile.

In a wide-ranging interview with JTA in her offices in the European Parliament in Brussels, Hybaskova related how her new role already was making it difficult to push neutral positions on issues connected to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

At a recent discussion on Palestinian human rights at the Parliament’s Committee on Development, she said she had been forced to take sides because the debate “lacked balance.”

“I had to take a very pro-Israeli position, which I didn’t like because I should be taking a neutral position,” she said.

Hybaskova’s background does not, at first glance, place her as a natural supporter of the Jewish state. A career diplomat who studied at the University of Cairo and describes herself as an Arabist, Hybaskova headed up the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Near East department in the early 1990s.

That was one of her first official contacts with Israel, at a time when then-Czechoslovakia renewed the diplomatic ties with the Jewish state that Czechoslovakia had broken off in 1968.

Hybaskova’s first diplomatic posting was to Slovenia in 1997, but it was her second job that placed her at the center of Middle East issues.

As the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar from 2000 to 2004, Hybaskova was one of the first diplomats to enter Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

That experience, together with her experience as Czechoslovakia threw off the Communist yoke, appears likely to color her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Peace in the Middle East is only possible with the development of democracy and human rights,” she said.

That conception — and the recent history of Central and Eastern Europe — make Hybaskova more of a supporter of close U.S. ties than most European politicians.

However, she regards the Bush administration’s focus on Iraq as blocking progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace — though she thinks that will change after U.S. elections in November, no matter who wins.

“This U.S. administration has been too focused on Iraqi issues, which are so complex and complicated, and the result is that there has been no room for reconciliation between the U.S. and Europe,” Hybaskova said. “Even if Bush is re-elected he will have to make it a priority to cooperate with the Europeans to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue back on track again.”

New members of the European Union, like Hybaskova, could well be the bridge to build that cooperation.

One of the two vice chairman of the delegation to Israel is Monika Benova, a Slovak Socialist, while the E.U.’s ambassador to NATO and the head of the Israel desk in the office of the E.U.’s foreign policy chief both are Czechs.

Hybaskova has yet to make the rounds of the principal Jewish and pro-Israel groups in Europe — neither MedBridge nor the European Jewish Congress was aware of her role when contacted by JTA — but she already is earning positive marks from Israeli diplomats in the European Union.

One diplomatic source described Hybaskova as “someone who sees herself as balanced and is keen to promote understanding” with Israel.

Moreover, in a context where around 60 percent of the legislators entering the European Parliament after June elections are new, the delegation is “very important, particularly if its chairman is interested,” the source said.

That said, Hybaskova does not fall into the category of some of the more uncritical supporters of Israel gathered around MedBridge, such as the Italian Radical Marco Pannela or the British Conservative Charles Tannock.

Hybaskova remains critical of the route of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, uncompromising about the illegality of settlements and at best skeptical with regard to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

In a long statement of principles pertaining to the Middle East conflict, Hybaskova told JTA that the European Union has to be “careful” of the disengagement plan because it “only disengages from certain settlements.”

“All settlements which are not within Israel’s recognized international borders we would call illegal, including those which are part of East Jerusalem,” she added. She apparently was referring to the “Green Line,” the armistice line after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which never was internationally recognized as a formal border.

Nevertheless, she also was quick to point out that “within the context of a final agreement, some of those settlements would remain part of Israel,” while “the necessary precondition for any peace plan is to stop terrorism and improve security co-operation.”

Those statements fit within a broad European consensus on the disengagement plan and what is viewed as its effective replacement of the “road map” peace plan authored by the European Union, United States, United Nations and Russia.

And they also show the tendency of new E.U. member countries to move quickly toward that consensus, almost as an entry ticket into E.U. institutions.

That was shown in the unanimous backing of all 25 member states for July’s U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Israel’s security fence, though pro-Israel observers in the European Union believe the vote was expected because it was seen as a credibility test for the International Court of Justice, which had just ruled the fence illegal.

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