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Former Costa Rican president lobbies to move embassy out of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Post
1 August 2002

Former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez is encouraging his government to transfer its embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in order to improve the Central American country's relations with the Arab world.

The campaign has sparked deep concern among Israeli officials and Costa Rica's Jewish community. Only Costa Rica and El Salvador maintain embassies in Jerusalem.

All other countries with representations, including the US, keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, a signal they do not accept Israel's designation of Jerusalem as its capital.

Costa Rica's embassy has been in Jerusalem since 1963 except for a short two-year period from 1980-1982. Its decision to house its embassy in Jerusalem has long been regarded as a symbol of its solidarity with Israel.

It has, however, also hindered Costa Rica's ability to develop relations with Arab countries, critics like Arias contend.

Costa Rica's foreign minister, Roberto Tovar, said this weekend that his country wants to establish relations with all Arab nations "with which we share democratic principles" and will try to encourage better economic ties between Costa Rica and the Arab world.

But Tovar added that Costa Rica's special relationship with Israel should not suffer as a result, and indicated that the administration is not exploring transferring the embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

Two sources said Arias has been calling Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco daily to lobby him on the issue. Arias denied that he has been pressing hard and played down the significance of his appeal.

"I'm not going to insist," Arias, who sits on the International Board of Governors of the Peres Center for Peace, told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.

"Tovar said he's not going to move the embassy. That's it. This is over. I write from time to time. I just wanted to share with the Costa Rican people my point of view on this particular issue."

It is unclear why Arias, who founded the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, has decided to press for an embassy move now.

Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1987 after authoring a peace agreement that ended years of armed conflict among five Central American countries. As a well-known public figure, he travels abroad frequently.

This spring he traveled to Lebanon for what Beirut's Daily Star newspaper described as a private visit. Recently he was a keynote speaker at a conference in the United Arab Emirates.

In Beirut, Arias told reporters that Costa Rica has "paid the very large price of being ostracized by the Arab world. It's an affront we have committed. When one has erred, it befits the brave to admit the error."

Arias said he did not seek nor receive any support for the embassy-move campaign during his trips to the Middle East.

Arias said he regrets not having moved the embassy himself when he was in office from 1986-1990, but notes that his presidency preceded the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, after which the political status of Jerusalem took on heightened significance.

Today, he likens Israel to South Africa during the apartheid years.

"I do admit that perhaps it was a mistake not to transfer, not to move the embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I want to be honest with myself and with the Costa Rican people and everybody," Arias told The Post.

Now Arias says it is "urgent" for Costa Rica to make the move. Arias outlined the reasons for why the embassy should be transferred in a July 24 opinion piece in the newspaper, Nacion.

"Send a new signal," he wrote. "The first day of my mandate, I signed a decree breaking my government's diplomatic relations with South Africa. It was a signal to the entire world that little Costa Rica was not identifying itself with the apartheid government in Pretoria.

"Today, 16 years later, I think that our government should, in the same way, send a new signal to the entire world by making a necessary rectification to move our diplomatic delegation from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv until a final solution is found regarding the new status that the City of Jerusalem should have.

"During many years, we deprived ourselves of having a real friendship with the Arab world, by maintaining along with just El Salvador, our embassy in Jerusalem.

"We are too old to continue to be a banana republic," he added.

Asked why he had a problem with Costa Rica keeping its embassy in the western part of Jerusalem, which is not in dispute like the eastern part, Arias said:

"It is not in dispute. I agree. My point is in the past historians referred to the Central American countries as banana republics, implying these are countries, nations with governments without any dignity."

"It was very pejorative. Why then does only Costa Rica and El Salvador need to keep their embassies in Jerusalem and not the rest of the world," Arias said.

"It is not wise to alienate 1.2 billion Muslims," he added, in remarks to The Post.

There are signs the new administration may feel the same way, despite Tovar's comments this weekend.

Back in May, shortly after President Pacheco took office, and prior to Arias's campaign, a rumor spread among Costa Rica's Jewish community that the new president was considering moving the embassy and sending a Jewish ambassador to soften the blow.

When word reached Jerusalem, a senior Israeli official arranged a meeting with Foreign Minister Tovar on the sidelines of a gathering of the Organization of American States in Barbados.

During that meeting Tovar never once raised the possibility of transferring the embassy, which reassured the Israeli official that a move was not imminent. But Tovar, according to diplomatic sources, stressed Costa Rica's desire to better relations with Arab countries.

The Israeli official and Tovar explored gestures that Costa Rica could make to the Arab world, short of transferring the embassy. And Tovar raised the theoretical possibility of establishing a Costa Rican representation in Ramallah.

Costa Rica has ambassadorial-level relations with Morocco and Egypt, though there is an Arab League ban on Costa Rican products. The embargo is not rigidly enforced, however.

The Costa Rican Jewish community is jittery about Arias' call to move the embassy out of Jerusalem.

One member of the Jewish community in San Jose said they have "assurances that relations between Costa Rica and Israel will be as close as ever and will be improved."

But he added that he does not believe Arias will abandon his effort. "He is persistent," the source said.

Israel is concerned that Costa Rica could bend to pressure to move the embassy and that tiny El Salvador while a strong supporter of Israel would be incapable of remaining the sole embassy in Jerusalem.

Both Costa Rica and El Salvador say they respect Israel's right to choose its own capital and celebrate their support for the Jewish state. They have also reaped benefits, including the admiration and support of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, which traditionally helps Israel's friends.

American Jewish delegations have frequently traveled to both countries to express gratitude to the leadership.

"Costa Rica stands out as a dear friend of the Jewish people and a stalwart ally of Israel," David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said during a 2000 visit to Costa Rica.

"We are coming to San Jose to express in person our deepest appreciation for Costa Rica's remarkable friendship and support, exemplified by its laudable decision to establish its embassy in Jerusalem."

Israel's principal ally, the US, is mandated by Congress to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But both former president Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush have delayed the move repeatedly, arguing that opening the embassy in Jerusalem would prejudge final status negotiations over the city's future and that it would not be in US national security interests to do so.


Paraguay shuts its embassy

Jerusalem Post
1 August 2002


Paraguay has closed its embassy in Israel, in an apparent reaction to Israel's decision to close its embassy in Asuncion for budget reasons.

Citing his country's own budget problems, Paraguayan Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Moreno wrote Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that Paraguay was compelled to temporarily close its embassy, located in Mevaseret Zion.

Paraguay wants to strengthen the friendly relations between the two countries, Moreno said. A newspaper in Paraguay reported that the embassy's operations would be moved to Vienna.

Israel shut its embassy in Paraguay in April and transferred its ambassador to Bolivia.