Czech President Milos Zeman joked on Thursday that he was not a dictator as herepeated a promise to work to move his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as he delivered a speech to the Knesset.
Ahead of Zeman’s remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Zeman on Monday, saying that the inauguration of a Czech cultural center in Jerusalem is a step toward moving Prague’s embassy there.
The prime minister welcomed Zeman to "Jerusalem, our eternal capital" and told the Czech president that "we were all excited when you declared in your speech in honor of our seventieth anniversary—’Next year in Jerusalem.’"
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Netanyahu also lauded the Czech president for being "one of the first leaders in the world at this time who recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."
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Emanuele Giaufret, the ambassador to Israel from the European Union – which opposes moving the Czech embassy to Jerusalem – looked on from the audience.
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"Millions of Palestinians live alongside the State of Israel, and while we believe in the Jewish people’s right to the entire country, at the top of our list of priorities is Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people, which requires a Jewish majority for its existence as such," Netanyahu said further.
Saying that "the choice is sometimes between difficult options," Netanyahu added that "we believe in a Jewish and democratic state" and that Israel "aspires to separate from the Palestinians, preferably in a state of their own despite, and perhaps because, of their problems."
Netanyahu noted the president’s remarks before a meeting of the American pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in which the president declared: "I am a Jew." Such remarks from a European leader will not be forgotten, Netanyahu said.
"Just decades ago, it was impossible to say the words ‘I am a Jew’ and remain alive," the Israeli prime minister noted."
And in a reference to remarks this week in which Iranian President Hassan Rohani called Israel "a cancerous tumor," Netanyahu added: "The entire world needs to come together and not allow a country whose leaders, just this week, labeled Israel a cancer to spread and finance terrorism in the region or obtain nuclear weaponry," the Israeli prime minister said.
Earlier, Zeman told President Reuven Rivlin on Monday that he looks forward to hearing from Rivlin about his ideas for a "one-state with two nations," adding that he cannot envision an independent state in Gaza.
"I was inspired by your idea about one state with two nations, Mr. President, and I know this idea is provocative – any big and deep idea is provocative," Zeman told Rivlin.
"So I wonder what will be your argument for this idea. Because for many many decades there is a discussion about two independent states but frankly speaking I do not see independent state in Gaza because I understand Hamas as a terrorist organization and not as a state," Zeman continued.
"This is also a provocation Mr. President. And I could imagine the people, mainly the journalists who will protest. But I have permanent battle with Czech journalists and I firmly hope that the situation in Israel will be better, he added."
"I truly believe in a Jewish and democratic state, but let me say this: Israel will always be a democracy for all its citizens," Rivlin responded.
Zeman arrived in Israel on Sunday for an official visit, during which he is expected to inaugurate the new Czech House cultural center in Jerusalem alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Czech president is also slated to speak before the Knesset on Monday, where he is expected to reiterate his promise to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – though the decision is not entirely under his authority.
The Joint List, a coalition of several Arab-majority parties, said its members would not attend Zeman’s Knesset speech because of his opposition to a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The inauguration of the Czech cultural center, scheduled for Tuesday, will be held in honor of the Czech Republic’s national day. Zeman will leave Israel on Wednesday.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in April that his country’s embassy in Israel will not move to Jerusalem, because such a move would contradict the official position of the European Union and the United Nations concerning Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital.
The Czech premier’s statement came after Zeman said that Netanyahu promised him his own house in Jerusalem if the Czech Republic moves its embassy. "He told me if you do so I’ll give you my own house," Zeman said. "I said that the Czech Republic is not such a rich country in order to refuse such a nice proposal I hope he will fulfil his promise."
The final decision is in the hands of the government, which appointed a Czech-Israeli businessman to the honorary counsul in Jerusalem and moved the cultural center to Jerusalem as a compromise.
The elected consul, Dan Propper, is the chairman of Israeli food conglomerate Osem Investments. Propper, an Israeli businessman of Czech background, has accepted the offer and is currently waiting to start manning the position once the official process gets underway.
The Czech Republic has already had an honorary consul in the Israeli capital—the late journalist Tatiana Hoffman—but since she passed away, the position has not been filled.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded at the time to the Czech president’s statement, saying: "I congratulate my good friend, Czech President Milos Zeman, over his important decision to move the Czech embassy to Jerusalem, and I hope that the move will be carried out quickly. I expect to host him here with all the respect he is due."