Czech president to visit Jerusalem Sunday in ‘first stage’ of embassy move
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Czech president to visit Jerusalem Sunday in ‘first stage’ of embassy move

Milos Zeman will also give a speech at the Knesset during trip to inaugurate office space in the capital that will not have diplomatic status

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Czech President Milos Zeman speaking at a reception in honor of Israel's 70th birthday at Prague Castle, April 25, 2018 (Facebook)
Czech President Milos Zeman speaking at a reception in honor of Israel's 70th birthday at Prague Castle, April 25, 2018 (Facebook)

Czech Republic President Milos Zeman will arrive in Israel on Sunday for a three-day state visit, during which he will formally open the “Czech House” office space in Jerusalem.

Located in the capital’s Cinematheque, the “Czech House” is billed by Prague as a “first step” toward relocating the country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

In April, Zeman announced the beginning of a process that will move the country’s diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though it remains unclear if and when Prague will actually open an embassy in the holy city.

Jiri Ovcacek, spokesman for Zeman, said that the Czech House would host government institutions including the foreign ministry’s Czech Center, the trade agency CzechTrade and tourism agency CzechTourism.

Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček reiterated in Israel last week that the “Czech House,” in reality is more of an office than a building, and will not have diplomatic status.

In April at the time of the announcement, the foreign ministry in Prague clarified that opening a new Czech center in Jerusalem “in no way prejudges the final agreement” concerning the city. “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 ministry said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Czech President Milos Zeman at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

As president, Zeman has limited executive power. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who controls the foreign ministry, has previously voiced opposition to a full-fledged relocation of the embassy in Israel, citing EU policy.

A staunch supporter of Israel, Zeman will lay a wreath at the Mount Herzl military cemetery after he arrives in Jerusalem, and will give a speech in the Knesset on Monday afternoon.

Zeman and his wife will meet with President Reuven Rivlin on two occasions during the visit — for an official welcome ceremony on Monday and then for a state dinner.

He is also expected to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and will have lunch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday before inaugurating “Czech House” later that day and attending an event to mark 100 years of sovereignty for the Czech people.

Earlier this month, the Czech foreign minister drew sharp criticism from a senior Palestinian official after he visited the Western Wall accompanied by an Israel diplomat.

Petříček visited the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City together with Israel’s ambassador in Prague, Daniel Meron. According to Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the visit marked the first time a European foreign minister was joined at the wall by an Israeli diplomat.

Israel’s Ambassador in Prague Daniel Meron, left, accompanies Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 13, 2018 (Twitter)

Third parties “have the obligation of non-recognition of unlawful situations, including Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem,” Erekat tweeted. By visiting the Old City accompanied by an Israeli official, Petříček “has violated this principle,” he wrote, adding that Ramallah expects the Czech position to be in line with those of the European Union.

The EU, like much of the international community, does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so officials of member states usually refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials. European dignitaries who want to visit the site usually do so in a private capacity.

In May, the Czech Republic reopened its honorary consulate in Jerusalem following its closure in 2016 due to the death of the honorary consul. The foreign ministry said at the time that the reopening had “no influence on the final agreement on Jerusalem,” adding that Prague “fully respects” the EU position backing a two-state solution for the conflict.

Zeman later said the reopening of the honorary consulate was part of an open-ended effort to move the Czech diplomatic mission to Jerusalem that would culminate with the relocation of its embassy.

The Czech embassy has been in Tel Aviv since 1949, except during the interruption of diplomatic relations under the former communist regime in Prague between 1967 and 1990.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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