A Palestinian Diplomat’s Death Muddles Mideast Ties in C. America

Following the death of its longtime “ambassador” to Nicaragua, Palestinian diplomacy in Central America faces a murky future. George Salameh, who had been the fully-accredited ambassador for the “State of Palestine” to Nicaragua and the Palestinian Authority’s highest envoy in the region, died Aug. 11 in Cuba from complications following surgery. He was 58.

The Palestinian Authority named Wali Mukac its new envoy to the region, but thus far Nicaragua has not yet given his posting its approval.

By the time of his death, Salameh had become the dean of the diplomatic corps stationed in Nicaragua, with over a dozen years as ambassador and a longer tenure in the region. However, with Nicaragua warming diplomatically to Israel, it is unclear if another Palestinian ambassador will be welcome.

Nicaragua is one of several Central American nations to reassess its ties to the Palestinians and Israel, with Israel making inroads in some countries while fearing setbacks in others.

While no one in Nicaragua will openly predict the country will reverse its full recognition of the “State of Palestine,” an inheritance from its revolutionary Sandinista regime of the 1980s, Nicaraguan officials and diplomats stationed here say they do not know if Mukac’s credentials will be accepted.

“I do not see why they would not accept his credentials,” Issa Salameh, son of the deceased ambassador and interim head of the embassy, said of Mukac. Salameh added that Mukac would not arrive in the country until the end of the year, at the earliest.

“It is a different time, a different situation,” Israel’s Costa-Rican based ambassador to Nicaragua, Alexander Ben-Zvi, said, adding that for Nicaragua it would be “difficult to go back” suddenly on recognition of Palestine.

The issue is less one of international diplomacy than it is a reflection of the country’s divisive internal political situation. The Palestinian legation is a legacy of the 1980s, when the Sandinista Revolution brought to power a leftist regime friendly to radical bands worldwide. Since the Sandinistas were ousted in the 1990 elections, they have remained an influential opposition force, allowing both Palestine and Libya to keep their embassies here open.

But presidents since 1990 have changed the tone of the country. In addition to moving closer to the United States and opening relations with Israel, Nicaragua has succumbed to the lure of Taiwan’s “dollar diplomacy” policy of providing aid to pet political projects in exchange for diplomatic recognition. As a result, Nicaragua has become an annual recipient of millions of dollars in Taiwanese aid but no longer recognizes China, which built cordial relations with the Sandinistas.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos had been scheduled to visit Israel last year, but domestic political instability indefinitely postponed the trip.

Currently, the Palestinian Embassy in Managua remains open, though its locally hired employees worry about their future, unsure if a new ambassador will be accepted or arrive.

Meanwhile, El Salvador, along with Costa Rica one of just two countries with an embassy in Jerusalem, may be warming to the Palestinians. The younger Salameh hinted at Palestinian interest in opening an office in the country.

El Salvadoran President Antonio Saca, of the right-wing ARENA Party, and leftist opposition FMLN leader Shafik Handal are both of Palestinian descent and both helped pay for the Palestine Plaza that opened last year in the capital, San Salvador. Earlier this year, the FMLN-controlled municipality built a Yasser Arafat Plaza on San Salvador’s Jerusalem Avenue.

After Saca took office last year, the elder Salameh traveled several times to San Salvador, attending the opening of the Yasser Arafat Plaza. He reportedly used his Palestinian diplomatic passport for those travels, something the Foreign Ministry would neither confirm nor deny.

Israel is also facing uncertainty in its diplomacy in the region. While it recently reopened its embassy in Panama, the future of the embassies in Jerusalem remains uncertain.

Former President and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias is the clear favorite to win February’s presidential vote in Costa Rica, and he has already stated that he would pull his country’s embassy out of Jerusalem.

If that happens, local Jewish leaders and Israeli diplomats fear it would provide Saca with an excuse to relocate El Salvador’s embassy, too, and with the United States continuing to drag its feet on moving its embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s call for recognition of Jerusalem’s status as its capital might suffer an international setback.

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