President Zeman visits Israel after controversial embassy move proposal

Miloš Zeman, Shimon Peres, photo: isifa / Sipa - USA / Xinhua

Czech President Miloš Zeman is in Israel on a four-day visit. On Monday, Mr Zeman met with top Israeli officials including the head of state, Shimon Peres. But even before the start of his visit, Mr Zeman caused an uproar when he said the Czech embassy should move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Miloš Zeman,  Shimon Peres,  photo: isifa / Sipa - USA / Xinhua
Talks between Czech President Miloš Zeman and the Israeli head of state, Shimon Peres, were cut short on Monday. The host unexpectedly left to pay a visit to a former Israel chief rabbi who was dying in hospital.

Before Mr Peres’ departure, however, the Czech and Israeli presidents agreed their countries enjoyed excellent relations. Mr Zeman suggested Israel was an island of democracy in the Middle East, and said fighting terrorism was the duty of the entire international community.

Mr Zeman on Monday also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and might again see Israel’s president later in the day. But the Czech head of state expressed his positive attitude to the Jewish state even before he arrived there.

Last week, the outspoken President Zeman said he would ask the next Czech government to move the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In an interview for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, President Zeman also suggested Palestinian refugees should not insist on their return to Israeli-occupied territories, and could instead move to Saudi Arabia.

Mr Zeman’s remarks, which contradict a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli declaration of Jerusalem as the nation’s capital, drew criticism from Palestinian groups including Hamas. The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization said the comments could put the Middle Eastern peace process at risk, and even called for an extraordinary session of the League of Arab States on the issue.

The head of the Czech president’s office for foreign relations, Hynek Kmoníček later said the comments had been taken out of context. But Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok admitted the president’s remarks could temporarily worsen the Czech Republic’s relations with Arab countries.

“This could certainly complicate certain issues. But I really would not overestimate it. I think the League of Arab States has other things to deal with than such comments.”

Jiří Rusnok,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Irena Kalhousová is an Israeli-based analyst for the Prague Security Studies Institute. She believes the Czech president’s remarks are unlikely to have an impact on how the Czech Republic is viewed in the Middle East.

“After all, the Czech Republic is quite a small EU country and what the president says has no practical implications. So yes, it stirs up emotions, positive and negative, that’s true. But it does not stipulate any policy changes.”

During his four-day visit, Miloš Zemani is also set to meet Czech expats and visit several sights in Jerusalem. The Czech president also insisted on a brief trip to the Dead Sea which is scheduled for Wednesday.