By Michael Winfrey and Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - When Czechs cast the lone European "no" vote against the Palestinian Authority's bid for semi-statehood at the United Nations this week, it was no surprise from a country Israel has named as its best friend on the continent.
Once the punchbag for aggressive neighbors before World War Two, the central European state of 10.5 million has long backed Israel and its main ally, the United States.
On Thursday, the Czechs joined Israel, the United States and six other nations in voting against a motion to grant the Palestinian Authority observer status at the United States as a "non-member state". Of the 138 "yes" votes, 14 came from European Union states, while the other 41 abstained.
A main reason is a center-right government that has distanced itself from the European mainstream on issues ranging from diplomacy and security to economic policy, often siding with Washington rather than fellow EU members.
But history also plays a role. Israel can thank the former Czechoslovakia for gaining the upper hand in 1948, when Prague broke a UN embargo to send it weapons, including 80 planes, and train pilots including future Israeli President Ezer Weizman.
"Israel has no better friend in Europe than the Czech Republic", Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Prague in May of this year.
At the time, his Czech counterpart Petr Necas related Israel's situation to that of former Czechoslovakia, which lost land to Germany, Poland and Hungary on the eve of World War Two.
"We've got a special feeling for Israel's situation - that of a small nation surrounded by enemies," Necas told the Jerusalem Post.
Pundits say the government's pro-Israeli stance could also be a reaction to its trying to undo the legacy of a Czech Communist regime that severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv after the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Communists also later supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization when it was in open conflict with Israel, training its operatives and awarding its leader Yasser Arafat the highest state medal.
That ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and in 1990, Prague restored diplomatic ties and then Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel visited Israel on one of his first foreign trips.Closer to us than EU
During Israel's war on the Gaza Strip this month, the Czech Foreign Ministry joined other European countries calling for an end to the violence.
But it underlined it "fully recognized Israel's right to self-defense against rocket barrages carried out by the military organizations in the Gaza strip", a sentiment absent from statements from the French and British but one closely resembling comments from US officials.
On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said the Czech Republic voted against the Palestinian motion because it feared it may further delay peace talks and said a two-state solution was only possible via direct negotiations, again echoing the US stance.
Prague's support for Israel also reflects an ongoing push by Czech center-right politicians to build stronger ties with Washington and the euro-skeptic tendency of the two main ruling parties, Necas's Civic Democrats and Top 09.
"There is no common EU position ... I think it will definitely complicate future negotiations," said Civic Democrat lawmaker and presidential candidate Premysl Sobotka.
The opposition Social Democrats take a more mainstream European approach, while, partly staffed by dissidents who opposed the Communists in the Cold War era, the center-right lobbied hard last decade for the establishment of a US radar base and staunchly supported the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The opposition said the UN vote would isolate the Czechs.
"The Social Democrats would never allow such a departure from the balanced policy approach and from European policy," said Lubomir Zaoralek, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats.
"I regard it as a mistake ... It shows the Czech Republic is traveling its own road and does not care about European policy."