In first for EU state, Hungary opens diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem
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In first for EU state, Hungary opens diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem

Three diplomats to be stationed in new mission, which is billed as a ‘branch’ of country’s embassy

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

Hungarian FM Péter Szijjártó and PM Benjamin Netanyahu open the Hungary's trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Hungarian FM Péter Szijjártó and PM Benjamin Netanyahu open the Hungary's trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Hungary’s foreign minister opened a trade office in Jerusalem that will have official “diplomatic status,” during a short visit to Israel Tuesday.

The new trade office is considered a “branch” of the Central European country’s embassy in Israel, which will remain in Tel Aviv.

“This is a very exciting moment for us because it’s the first European diplomatic mission opened in Jerusalem in many decades and three Hungarian diplomats are going to be assigned to this office for trade purposes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the mission’s opening ceremony. “That’s important for trade, for diplomacy and for the move that Hungary is leading right now to change the attitude in Europe toward Jerusalem.”

In his speech, Netanyahu mentioned US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the opening of the U.S. embassy in the city in May 2018.

“And there’s a plot waiting for you right next to the American embassy,” Netanyahu told Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who had arrived from Budapest for the occasion.

The new trade office is located on the 15th floor of the Migdal Ha’ir office tower in western Jerusalem. It will be staffed by three diplomats.

“We have always fought for a fair and balanced approach on behalf of the international community towards Israel,” Szijjártó said. “I have to underline here once again that we reject to combine restrictive economic and commercial measures with political issues,” he added, reiterating his government’s opposition to the European Union’s directive to label Israeli goods produced in settlements.

“We will not apply the decision of the European Commission on labeling. We do not support the list of companies in the settlements to be announced by the high representative of Human Rights of the United Nations and we urge for a tighter, better and more dynamic cooperation between Israel and the European Union,” he said.

The opening ceremony, during with Netanyahu and Szijjártó cut the ribbon at the new trade mission’s entrance, was also attended US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, US Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein, Hungarian Ambassador to Israel Levente Benko, Czech Ambassador to Israel Martin Stropnicky and Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani.

Several Western European states, including France, have consulates in Jerusalem that serve primarily — but not only — Palestinians. But they are considered consular missions that fulfill a “totally different” objective than embassies or trade offices, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon.

“They take care of consular issues relevant to the population of Jerusalem. Here we’re talking about something totally different. This is pure diplomacy,” he said of the Hungarian trade office. “This is part of the embassy and they’re going to be dealing with issues that go way beyond mere consular issues.”

Hungary’s FM Péter Szijjártó and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the newly opened Hungarian trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Earlier on Sunday, Szijjártó hailed the fact that 200 Israeli companies operate in Hungary, providing 5,000 jobs. In 2018, bilateral trade exceeded $525 million, he noted.

“Cooperation with Israel is gaining increasing importance during the Hungarian economy’s period of dimensional transition,” he said. “Hungary continues to play an important role in the business strategies of Israeli enterprises; they are maintaining their presence in Hungary, and will be expanding their activities practically without exception,” he told Hungarian journalists during a phone briefing from Jerusalem.

The opening of the trade issue was first announced last month during a visit to Jerusalem by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“I just informed the prime minister that the Hungarian government decided that we will open up a trade representation here, which will have a diplomatic status, so we will appear now in Jerusalem officially as well,” Orban said, standing next to Netanyahu after the two leaders held a bilateral meeting.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, February 19, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom)

“So I hope it will be a good step forward to even improve further the relationship between the Israeli people and Hungary,” he said speaking in English, as the planned translation from Hungarian into Hebrew failed.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu remarked how quickly Budapest fulfilled its promise. “Only four weeks ago Prime Minister Orbán was here and he said that he would open this office and in four weeks this office is opened. I want to extend my appreciation and thanks to him and to you and to say that we’re delighted with the relationship, the friendship, between Israel and Hungary,” he said.

“It has never been as strong. Our trade has never been stronger. Our cooperation in all areas: Security, diplomacy, everything has never been stronger.”

Netanyahu also congratulated Budapest for its “superb” fight against the “falsehoods and slanders” leveled at Israel in international forums and thanked the government for its consistent and “robust” opposition against anti-Semitism

On February 19, Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, too, announced the opening of cultural and trade office in Jerusalem, though it was not immediately clear if it would have any diplomatic status.

But Orban and Pellegrini both stopped short of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Currently, only the US and Guatemala have their Israel embassies in Jerusalem.

Pellegrini, the Slovak leader, after his meeting with Netanyahu Tuesday announced the opening of a “new cultural, information and innovation center” in Jerusalem, which he said would open “very soon.”

“Because we also made the decision that Slovakia will have for the first time in our history only four diplomats responsible for innovation and one of these will be exactly in Jerusalem at this new center,” he said.

Netanyahu said he was “absolutely delighted” with the decision to open a new center in Jerusalem. “It is my hope that this will be the first step toward opening a Slovak embassy in Jerusalem.”

The Czech Republic in November ceremoniously opened the so-called Czech House in Jerusalem, which houses companies such as CzechInvest, CzechTrade, CzechTourism, Czech Center in a small office space in the capital’s Cinematheque.

As opposed to the planned Hungarian trade mission, the Czech House does not have any diplomatic status, officials insisted at the time.

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