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El Salvadoran Jews breathe sigh of relief

Former rebel leader Schafik Handal addresses supporters at a March 6 rally in Acajutla, El Salvador. (Brian Harris)

Former rebel leader Schafik Handal addresses supporters at a March 6 rally in Acajutla, El Salvador. (Brian Harris)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, March 23 (JTA) — Worries that El Salvador would immediately move its embassy in Israel to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem appear to be unfounded following the defeat of a former leftist rebel in Sunday’s presidential election. But the embassy may still be moved in the next couple of years. The elections, which pitted two candidates united by a common Palestinian heritage but divided by a huge ideological gulf, had been expected to be close. But it turned into a landslide as voters chose to turn down former guerrilla leader Schafik Handal and the FMLN Party he represents. Handal, 73 and the son of Palestinian immigrants, had vowed to move the country’s embassy out of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, where only El Salvador and Costa Rica have their embassies. Antonio “Tony” Saca of the right-wing ARENA party won the vote with 57 percent support in heavy turnout, according to preliminary reports. Although the FMLN tried to make foreign policy an issue in the campaign, voters focused on local issues, including ARENA charges that an FMLN win would lead to mass deportations of Salvadorans living in the U.S. The opposition dismissed such charges as “smear tactics.” Saca, 39 and the grandson of Palestinian immigrants, has shown sympathy for Palestinian causes, but he was the favored candidate of El Salvador’s small Jewish community in part because he is seen as being less likely to move the embassy in Israel. “If the other party had won, we would have been in trouble,” Claudio Kahn, president of El Salvador’s tiny Jewish community, told JTA via telephone. “We are more at ease with this result.” However, the Jewish community is still viewing Saca’s victory with caution. Last year Saca, along with Handal, helped fund the building of “Palestine Plaza” in the capital city, San Salvador. A Palestinian Authority flag flies at the small park dedicated “to the millions of Palestinians expelled from their lands” by the creation of the Israeli state. During the campaign, Saca also skillfully dodged committing himself to keeping the embassy in Jerusalem, instead saying that moving the embassy would do little toward resolving the Middle East’s problems and that he sees no reason for El Salvador to wade into the troubles plaguing the Middle East. Palestinian critics of the embassy’s location say that by maintaining diplomatic representation in Jerusalem, countries are contributing to the region’s divisions. Diplomatic observers in San Salvador say Saca, a former sports broadcaster and political novice, is unlikely to move the embassy very quickly out of fear of offending the United States, whose favor ARENA makes no secret of wanting, more than any other deciding factor. During the Central American nation’s bloody civil war, which ended in 1993, Israel provided official and covert support to the various U.S.-backed right-wing administrations as they battled the leftist guerrillas in a war that left an estimated 100,000 dead. ARENA, closely tied to the business community and very much a supporter of the United States, has governed since 1989. But Israeli officials were much less enthusiastic about backing ARENA in this campaign because of Sacás background as a leader of the 60,000-strong Arab community in El Salvador. Despite misgivings about Saca, Israel was even more riled at the possibility of an FMLN win, which pre-election opinion polls said would earn more than the 36 percent support it earned Sunday. Just how long the El Salvadoran embassy remains in Jerusalem is still in doubt, despite voters’ rejection of FMLN and Saca’s stated desire not to cause waves. In the only other country with its embassy in Jerusalem, 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias formally announced last week that he will run in Costa Rica’s 2006 presidential race. Arias, Costa Rica’s most beloved public figure and considered by many to be a shoo-in to be elected, has said that if elected he will move his country’s embassy to Tel Aviv. Were that to happen, many observers, including Kahn, would expect Saca to follow suit. Kahn said Saca faces “pressure from his paisanos” to move the embassy, and that if El Salvador is left as the only country with an embassy in Jerusalem it likely would have to move it. Saca aides with ties to the Arab community speculate that Saca personally would like to move the embassy but probably will not abandon Jerusalem unless conditions change to the point where a Salvadoran move would not attract as much attention. No matter in what direction the Saca administration takes the country’s foreign policy, Saca is not expected to be as radical as Handal had promised to be. Not only had the Soviet-educated former commander promised to move the embassy from Jerusalem, but Handal had hinted at closer ties to Palestinian officials.

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