Candidate for El Salvador’s President Vows to Move Israel Embassy if Elected

The leader of El Salvador’s most popular political party said this week that he would close his country’s embassy in Jerusalem if elected president next year.

In a television interview with a small station in San Salvador, Shafik Handal, leader of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front legislative bloc and the front-runner for the party’s presidential bid, said that “as someone of Palestinian descent,” he would close the Jerusalem embassy if he wins the March 2004 presidential elections.

Early polls show that a plurality of voters support the FMLN, which has the largest voting bloc in the legislature. The ex-guerrilla party hopes to unseat the right-wing National Republican Alliance, or ARENA, from the presidency. It has controlled the presidency since the mid-1980s, when U.S.-backed ARENA governments fought a bloody civil war with Marxist FMLN rebels.

Costa Rica and El Salvador, which received military aid from Israel during the civil war, are the only countries with embassies in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv; many do not recognize Israel’s rights in Jerusalem.

Handal’s spokeswoman, Patricia Munoz, told JTA that Handal would maintain diplomatic relations with Israel if elected.

“Shafik has his roots in Palestine and identifies with the Arab community in El Salvador,” FMLN spokesperson Marco Tulio Ramos said.

While Handal’s candidacy has the support of the FMLN’s political leadership, his nomination is not assured.

Widely seen as representing the FMLN’s old guard of orthodox leftists and dismissed as a dinosaur by ARENA leaders, Handal has split the party along ideological lines in the past. The reform wing of the party backs New San Salvador mayor Oscar Ortiz for the nomination. The primary election is July 27.

If Handal wins the FMLN nomination, he likely will face off against former President Armando Calderon Sol, the likely ARENA nominee, who handily beat Handal in 1995 in the country’s first postwar elections.

At the time, the FMLN was mainly a rural and poorly organized group. But the party has become popular in urban areas since the U.N.-brokered 1992 peace accords, and in last March’s mid-term elections the FMLN won a plurality of legislative seats and mayoral posts.

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