US President Donald Trump has created a firestorm of controversy in the Islamic world by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Amid this saga, not many people may be aware that the US is actually not the first country that has officially acknowledged the status of Jerusalem. There are, in fact, a few other countries that have already done so. The Czech Republic is one among them.
During the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague was home to one of the largest Jewish communities on the European continent. And in the early 16th century, Jews accounted for as much as 25 percent of the total population of the city.
Although the Jewish population in the former Czechoslovakia plummeted as a result of the Holocaust during the Second World War, pro-Jewish sentiments remained strong in the country after the war.
That explains why Czechoslovakia was one of the staunchest supporters of the creation of Israel in 1947, and threw its weight behind Tel Aviv during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War by smuggling tons of weapons into the Jewish state to support its war effort.
Even though for a considerable period of time, Czechoslovakia had to toe Moscow’s line and cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, Prague quickly and eagerly re-established official ties with Tel Aviv shortly after the end of the Cold War. No wonder Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said that the Czech Republic is Israel’s best friend in Europe.
Moreover, the Czech Republic also supported Israel’s bid to join NATO in order to deter Iran, and in recent years has been putting a lot of effort into facilitating closer relations between Israel and the European Union (EU), not to mention that it is the only EU member which is against accepting Palestine as an observer to the United Nations.
In May this year, the Czech parliament passed a resolution recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital.
After President Trump had announced his decision to acknowledge Jerusalem’s status on December 6, the Czech government quickly followed his lead and recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in accordance with “the pre-1967 border”.
And back in 2011, Prague also joined Washington in opposing the decision of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to accept Palestine as a full member.
Apart from the Czech Republic, Israel also has an unexpected ally over the Jerusalem issue — the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
Like I have discussed in my previous articles, Vanuatu has remained highly pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy so as to serve its best national interests.
For example, over the years the island nation has been successfully navigating between China and Taiwan in order to maximize its gains in foreign aid from both Beijing and Taipei.
And the same pragmatic diplomatic approach applies to Israel as well. When Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam back in 2015, Israel quickly rallied to aid its relief efforts by sending a lot of people to help. At the same time, Tel Aviv also promised to provide the country with foreign aid in technologies, education and healthcare on a yearly basis.
Tel Aviv’s painstaking efforts have obviously paid off, as Vanuatu under its incumbent president Tallis Obed Moses, who claimed to have a strong sense of Christian identity, is in fact the first country in the world that officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital even before the US and the Czech Republic did.
Last but not least, Taiwan and Israel used to have close but low-profile relations during the Cold War, and a lot of US arms sales to Taiwan were actually carried out through Israel.
Shortly after Washington had acknowledged Jerusalem’s status earlier this month, some Taiwanese netizens found that the foreign ministry of Taiwan had quietly changed the capital of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the “world overview” page of its official website, even though the foreign ministry later clarified that it had no intention of recognizing Jerusalem’s status.
In my view, given Taiwan’s current diplomatic isolation, perhaps it is worth its while to risk scorn and join the US, the Czech Republic and Vanuatu in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Taipei has no ally in the Arab world anyway, and therefore it has nothing to lose.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 15
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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