Czech president announces 3-stage plan to move embassy to Jerusalem – eventually

Announcement comes despite opposition from country’s prime minister; Israeli politicians hail Milos Zeman’s pledge

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

Czech President Miloš Zeman (L) meets with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely at an event in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day at Prague Castle on April 25, 2018. (Courtesy)
Czech President Miloš Zeman (L) meets with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely at an event in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day at Prague Castle on April 25, 2018. (Courtesy)

The president of the Czech Republic on Wednesday announced the beginning of a process that will move the country’s diplomatic missions from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though it remains unclear if and when Prague will actually open an embassy in the holy city.

President Miloš Zeman announced the three-staged move, which starts next month with the appointment of an honorary consul in Jerusalem and is to conclude at an undetermined time with the relocation of the embassy.

Israeli politicians hailed Zeman’s speech, despite the fact that as president, he has limited executive power. Acting Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis is opposed to a full-fledged relocation of the embassy, saying he does not want to break with EU policy.

“There will be, I hope, three phases of removal of the Czech embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Zeman said at an event in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day at Prague Castle — the first-ever celebration of another country’s anniversary held at the site.

“The second phase, well, we have many, many institutions: Czech Invest, Czech Trade, Czech Tourism, Czech Center. And all those institutions are to be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said.

The actual embassy move would be the third stage.

Czech President Miloš Zeman (R) meets with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (L) at an event in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day at Prague Castle on April 25, 2018.

On December 6, US President Donald 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.

Trump’s decision to move his country’s embassy, welcomed by Israel, has been condemned by many leaders and foreign ministers across the world, who have said the city’s status should be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem — captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War — as their capital.

A short while after Zeman’s speech — in which he failed to say when exactly the embassy would move to Jerusalem — the Czech Foreign Ministry issued a statement clarifying Prague’s policy.

The statement recalls that the Czech government last year, shortly after the US move, recognized the city’s Western part as Israel’s capital.

“It thus only acknowledged what is standard practice by other States when making their official visits to Israel,” Wednesday’s statement read.

In this April 12, 2018 photo 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)

“According to usual diplomatic practice, States have their embassies in the capitals of the receiving States. This is why the Czech Republic has decided, as a first step, to open an honorary consulate (led by Honorary Consul Mr. Dan Propper) in May and a new Czech Center by the end of this year, both in West Jerusalem.

“This step in no way prejudges the final agreement concerning Jerusalem,” the statement continues. “The Czech Republic fully respects common policy of the European Union, which considers Jerusalem as the future capital of both the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine.”

The statement goes on to note the longstanding friendship between the two peoples, pointing that Czechoslovakia opened a Consulate General in Jerusalem in the 1920s, when it was still the British Mandate.

“The Czech Republic will go on striving for Jerusalem to remain an open city where people of different faiths can practice their beliefs freely. To make the city of Jerusalem a place of tolerance and understanding remains our ultimate goal,” the statement concludes. It does not mention the country’s embassy or any plans to move it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Despite this clarification, many leading Israeli politicians rushed to issue congratulatory statements.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, for instance, welcomed Zeman’s “decision to transfer the Czech Embassy to Jerusalem.”

“Another embassy moves to Jerusalem,” gushed Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, adding that “the facts on the ground speak for themselves — and slowly, slowly many countries in the world will follow the US and relocate their embassies.”

In his speech, Zeman — a longtime ally of Israel — mentioned that he called for moving the Czech embassy to Jerusalem four years ago, joking that Trump was merely copying him.

“The president of the Czech Republic is a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people and has always seen Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people,” Israel’s Ambassador in Prague, Daniel Meron, told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview Wednesday evening.

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