Czech Republic opens embassy office in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, photo: Public Domain

The Czech Republic has confirmed its friendly relations with Israel, becoming only the second EU country to open a branch of its embassy in Jerusalem. The office, staffed by a diplomat and an administrator, started operating on Monday, March 1. I discussed the importance of the move with Petr Kratochvíl from the Institute of International Relations, and begun by asking him about the reasons behind it:

Miloš Zeman in Israel,  photo: Štěpán Macháček,  ČRo

“There are two dimensions to the decision, the personal and the national. The personal is, primarily, the strong influence of president Zeman. He has several pet projects in foreign policy that he has been cultivating for a long time. So every time the government needs something from the president they offer him a “diplomatic morsel” so to speak, for which they expect his favours and this is a case in point.

“And secondly, there is the national dimension. The Czech Republic has for long been a stalwart ally of Israel and the symbolic role of Israel in Czech foreign policy by far exceeds the real relevance of Israel for the country politically, economically and security-wise. But still, it is a feature that unites virtually the entire political spectrum.”

How important is this gesture for Israel, considering that the international community still largely refuses to recognize Jerusalem as its capital city?

Jerusalem | Photo: neufal54,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“Well, of course, it is important for Israel, especially as there are not many countries in the EU that have taken a similar step. But what is even more important is the framing of this issue.

“Rudolf Jindrák from the presidential office described this as a highly significant symbolic step and the president’s spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, even connected it directly with the effort to move the embassy there.

“And of course this will definitely be used as a kind of publicity stunt by the Israeli government. If you look at the Israeli media of today, for instance the headline in Jerusalem Post says: the Czech Republic affirms commitment to move embassy. So for them it is not about moving a branch but about moving the embassy.”

So can the step be seen as a precursor to the eventual transfer of the Czech embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem?

“Well, the trajectory is certainly there. But as I said, the answer to this question depends on the continued strength of the pro-Israeli segment of the Czech political class. And President Zeman is indeed the strongest driver behind this.

“So after the end of his presidential term, the move will certainly lose at least part of its attraction in the Czech political sphere. But as a topic it will definitely remain on the agenda for years and even decades to come.”

The Czech Foreign Ministry has stressed that the establishment of a diplomatic presence at its Czech House in Jerusalem is not connected to the ongoing peace process in the Middle East. So what will be the aim of the Czech diplomatic mission in the Holy City?

Jerusalem,  photo: zeevveez,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“Now that is really the question, is it not? How can we disconnect such a highly symbolic step from the ongoing peace process in the Middle East? It definitely has and will have an impact on the perception of the Czech position within the peace process in the Middle East.

“Another question is: what exactly can the new diplomat do in Jerusalem that she could not do in Tel Aviv: And, mind you, we already have an honorary consulate in Jerusalem. So this is not about the Czech tourists in the city.

“According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the new diplomat is supposed to primarily cover a political and economic agenda, not consular services. So my conclusion is that this is about making a symbolic gesture and about politics, not about a pragmatic need of having a branch of the Czech embassy in Jerusalem.”