Czech PM says country will open honorary consulate, not embassy in Jerusalem

Israel had hoped the Czech Republic would follow the US and move its mission from Tel Aviv; acting PM Babis does not want to break with EU policy

In this file photo from April 12, 2018, Czech Republic's acting Prime Minister Andrej Babis speaks during a news conference at the government's headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
In this file photo from April 12, 2018, Czech Republic's acting Prime Minister Andrej Babis speaks during a news conference at the government's headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Acting Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that his country is unlikely to follow the US and move its embassy to Jerusalem, but is still interested in boosting its presence in the city.

The Czech Republic will open a new honorary consulate in Jerusalem in the next few months, Babis said Friday, according to Radio Prague. Babis also said that the government was considering opening a Czech center in the city during a planned visit to Israel by its president, Milos Zeman, at the end of 2018.

According to the Radio Prague report, Babis does not want to break with the EU position, which holds that the issue of Jerusalem needs to first be resolved in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for for Jews and Muslims, is seen in Jerusalem’s Old City, Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Babis believed that opening a Czech consulate would not violate those principles, the radio report said.

Israel had been hopeful that the Czechs would follow US President Donald Trump and several other nations who have promised to move their missions.

In March an Israeli Foreign Ministry cable reportedly said that they had begun examining the practical implications of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

In a classified cable written to the Foreign Ministry, Israel’s Ambassador to Prague Daniel Meron credited Jerusalem’s diplomatic efforts for developments on the issue in the Czech Republic, which “has begun a quiet internal staff evaluation to examine the possibilities and risks regarding the transfer of its embassy.”

Meron wrote that Israeli pressure following decisions from the US and Guatemala to move their respective embassies to Jerusalem have made the Czech Republic more open to following suit.

However, the decision will ultimately be made by Babis, who is seen as particularly risk averse.

“At the same time, the prime minister is very influenced by public opinion, which is well-known to be pro-Israel,” Meron wrote, adding that it was crucial for Jerusalem to continue its public outreach in Prague to cement that support.

Czech President Milos Zeman, center, arrives at a polling station in Prague on January 12, 2018. (AFP/Michal Cizek)

The ambassador argued that Israel ought to utilize Zeman, who has been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state and has recently advocated for the embassy move.

While acknowledging that he plays a largely ceremonial role, Meron wrote that Zeman still has sway in Prague.

Meron said Zeman had very much appreciated a letter that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent him earlier this month thanking him for his position in favor of the embassy move. The Czech president has also announced his plans to host an Israeli Independence Day celebration at his residence on April 25, the Israeli diplomat noted.

“The discussions [on this issue] continue and we have learned that a ministerial team was also set up, including the president’s adviser, the deputy foreign minister, and the prime minister’s adviser for internal coordination on the possibility of transferring the embassy to Jerusalem,” Meron wrote.

The cable came less than two weeks after the Lidové noviny newspaper reported that Zeman, who in December announced his intention to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv, now wants to speed up the process.

However, the report also said that after consultation with its partners in the European Union, the country’s foreign ministry objected to moving the embassy. The report also said the Czech government does not currently own property in Jerusalem that would be suitable for its embassy.

In December, Zeman said he supported Trump’s decision to move the US embassy but was disappointed that Washington had done it first.

“It makes me truly happy because, as I said during my visit to Israel four years ago, I would appreciate the transfer of the Czech Embassy to Jerusalem, and had it happened, we would have been the first to do so,” said Zeman, who was elected to a second five-year term in office the following month. “Now we may sooner or later follow the United States. In any case, it is still better than nothing.”

The US embassy in Tel Aviv, December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

On December 6, Trump bucked decades of US foreign policy by formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and setting in motion plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. In February the US administration announced that it would open its Jerusalem embassy in May 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.

After Trump’s announcement, the Czech foreign ministry said it recognizes the pre-1967 West Jerusalem as the country’s capital, while noting the city should be a shared capital with the Palestinians.

“The ministry can start considering moving of the Czech embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem only based on results of negotiations with key partners in the region and in the world,” it said at the time.

Trump’s decision to move his country’s embassy, welcomed by Israel, has been condemned by leaders and foreign ministers across the world, who have said the city’s status should be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

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