Czech House, feted as ‘first step’ in embassy move, opens in Jerusalem

Netanyahu cuts ribbon for new center alongside visiting Czech President Zeman, who calls it a ‘candle against the darkness’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his wife Sara and President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman attend the opening ceremony of the Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his wife Sara and President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman attend the opening ceremony of the Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Czech President Milos Zeman on Tuesday formally opened the so-called Czech House in Jerusalem, an office space billed by Prague as the “first step” of relocating the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital.

“Friends, let me declare the Czech House opening, and I firmly believe that my fourth visit to Israel will be the opening of the Czech embassy,” Zeman said at the ceremony, to loud applause from the audience.

“Bibi, we politicians sometimes produce plenty of words, but what you see is the action, is the deed,” he said, calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname. “That is why I want to express my sincerest thanks for the people, who instead of words organized this candle against the darkness, the candle of the friendship between our two nations.”

Jokingly, he added that he believed that in the “near future” there would not only be a Czech embassy in Jerusalem, “but also a nice Czech tavern with good Czech beer.”

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman (2R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2L) attend the opening ceremony of the Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu participated in the half-hour long event, cutting the ribbon together with the Czech president. The leaders’ wives also took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The office is located in the Jerusalem Cinematheque building.

“We have no greater friend than the Czech Republic in the eastern hemisphere,” Netanyahu said, sitting on a stage next to Zeman.

Israel has “flourishing relations” with an increasing number of countries, he went on, noting the recent breakthrough in bilateral ties with Chad.

“These relations, as is the nature of international alliances, are based on a commonality of interests, interests for something, interests against something, and very often both,” Netanyahu said. “With the Czech Republic, as with the United States of America, there is something else — it’s a deep, deep commonality of values.”

Tuesday’s ceremony, which included a lengthy musical performance by Israeli and Czech artists, was also attended by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Deputy Foreign Minister Zipi Hotovely, Jerusalem mayor-elect Moshe Lion, and other dignitaries.

Friedman later tweeted that he was “Looking forward to the Czech Embassy opening here in the near future!”

Earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu hosted Zeman in his Jerusalem office, calling the opening of the Czech House “a very important decision en route to another one.”

“We say ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ So, next year we hope to see an embassy in Jerusalem, but next year in Prague, we have a G2G meeting,” Netanyahu added.

Israeli-Czech government-to-government consultations would ideally take place in the first quarter of 2019 and “the relocation of the embassy is to be discussed” on that occasion, Zeman replied.

Zeman, a staunch supporter of Israel, on Monday vowed to do everything in his power to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but also acknowledged that he does not have the authority to do so.

“Tomorrow I will open the Czech House. Where? In Jerusalem. And it connects CzechInvest, CzechTrade, CzechTourism, Czech Center, and so on,” he said during a brief speech to the Knesset — the first ever of a Czech leader to Israel’s parliament.

In April, Zeman announced the beginning of a three-stage process to move the country’s diplomatic missions from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The first step was the appointment of an honorary consul in Jerusalem.

The second step was Tuesday’s opening of the so-called Czech House, an office space in the capital’s Cinematheque, where Czech diplomats will conduct meetings but which will have no official diplomatic status.

“Well, friends, I am no dictator, unfortunately,” Zeman told the Knesset plenum. “But — I promise I’ll do my best in order to realize the third step, after [the] honorary consulate and after [the] Czech House and you can guess what is to be the third step.”

As president, Zeman has limited executive power. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has previously voiced opposition to a full-fledged relocation of the embassy in Israel, citing the policy of the European Union, which is staunchly opposed to the move.

The Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday that the Czech House will “include Czech government representatives as a first stage ahead of moving the embassy to the capital.”

On Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that the Czech ambassador “will work part of the time from Jerusalem,” just like US Ambassador David Friedman.

“We’ve been given assurances” to that effect, she told Army Radio. “It’s the first time the European flag will fly in Jerusalem.”

The Czech ambassador, Martin Stropnický, confirmed to The Times of Israel that he would be holding some meetings at the Czech House, but reiterated that it would not have diplomatic status.

“I’m in Jerusalem anyway twice a week,” he said, “so instead of meeting in a cafe I can invite officials to come there.”

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