In 2018, the Czech President Miloš Zeman promised in a speech on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel to do everything in his power to move the Czech embassy to Jerusalem. Last week, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš finally opened an official diplomatic office in the Holy City. With Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu claiming that Israel has ‘no greater friend in the Eastern hemisphere’ than the Czech Republic, the move has underlined Central Europe’s divergence from the EU when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The official Czech Embassy still remains in Tel Aviv – but the nation has gone against EU policy by becoming the bloc’s second member to open an official diplomatic branch in Jerusalem. EU leaders have strongly warned member states against making this kind of move, fearing that recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital endangers the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The EU has been critical of Israeli aggression in the West Bank and refuses to recognise any territorial changes between Israel and Palestine since the six-day war in 1967, including Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.
President Zeman, meanwhile, describes nations who refuse to relocate their embassies to Jerusalem as ‘cowards’. His unwavering stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one of a long series of departures from EU norms for the Eurosceptic head of state. Zeman pulls no punches in expressing his views, describing Hamas as a terrorist organisation and refusing to condemn Israeli plans to annex settlements in the West Bank. He first proposed moving the Czech Republic’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in 2013 – long before Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy caused global hand-wringing in 2017.
But the Czech Republic is not the first EU member to open an official diplomatic branch in Jerusalem, with Hungary having already opened a new diplomatic office there in 2019. When Czech Prime Minister Babiš went to open the Czech Republic's new Jerusalem office last week, he was accompanied by Orbán – ostensibly to discuss the success of the Israeli vaccine rollout, but also, perhaps, to underline a Central European concord on the status of Jerusalem.
The Czech Republic and Hungary banded together to veto an EU statement condemning the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, as the bloc desperately tried to distance itself from Donald Trump’s incendiary move. Netanyahu clearly values the willingness of Czech and Hungarian leaders to disrupt European unity – both states were included in a list of countries intended to receive vaccines as gifts from Israel in late February.
So what explains the strong relations between Israel and two landlocked countries in the heart of Europe? And what could drive their determination to depart from the EU’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The Czech Republic and Hungary both have long histories of defying the EU when it comes to perceived violations of national sovereignty. Commentators note that when it comes to Jerusalem, Central European leaders admire Israel’s fierce protection of its own sovereignty, seeing the nation as a model of independence and self-sufficiency.
Such admiration may have become increasingly strong in recent years due to fervent Central European opposition to perceived cultural and political impositions from Brussels. In the Czech Republic, the EU threat to national sovereignty is most often linked with the idea of migrant quotas. With Czech elections approaching in October, Prime Minister Babiš recently accused rivals of planning to allow more migrants into the country. A fear of migration may be linked to the nation’s relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity – it has been claimed that the very low proportion of Muslims living in the Czech Republic is behind an almost total lack of pro-Palestinian sentiment in Czech public discourse.
For many in Hungary, Orban’s pro-Israel political stance sits uncomfortably with allegations of anti-Semitism levelled at the ruling Fidesz party – the clearest example being the party’s demonisation of Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. Some even argue Orbán’s close relations with Netanyahu are an election ploy to counter such accusations. But while domestic political considerations may play an important role, it is clear that Hungarian leaders identify with Israel on an ideological level. The Hungarian foreign minister recently suggested a kind of brotherhood between the two nations by describing Israel and Hungary as among the countries most persecuted by international organisations and the media.
Hungarian and Czech politicians see parallels between international criticism of Israel’s attitude in its conflict with Palestine, and criticism of the Visegrád region on contentious issues of national sovereignty, including migrant quotas and, in Hungary’s case, LGBT rights. Eurosceptics like Zeman and Orbán perceive their region as similarly misunderstood – and similarly threatened by external forces.
By opening embassy offices in Jerusalem, the Czech and Hungarian governments have rejected the careful line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taken by the EU. In doing so, Czech and Hungarian leaders have asserted their own sense of political and cultural independence.