SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Aug. 27)
El Salvador will move its embassy in Israel to Tel Aviv, a diplomatic setback that leaves Israel’s capital without any embassies. In a written statement late last Friday, El Salvador’s government said the move was aimed at helping the Middle East peace process. The statement went on to offer El Salvadoran "recognition of the right of a Palestinian state to exist."
The move comes 10 days after Costa Rica, the only other country that kept an embassy in Jerusalem, announced it was moving it to Tel Aviv. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said the move was an attempt to "rectify a historic error."
Both countries had maintained embassies in the western sector of Jerusalem since the early 1980s.
El Salvador’s president, Antonio "Tony" Saca, is of Palestinian descent. His right-wing ARENA party moved the embassy to Jerusalem in 1984, after Israel supported the country’s armed forces despite international scorn for El Salvador’s poor human rights record during a bloody civil war with the leftist FMLN guerrillas, but Saca had always been evasive on the embassy issue.
In 2004, shortly before his election, Saca was a major contributor to construction of a "Palestine Plaza" in San Salvador. The plaza, which honors the "victims" of Israeli independence in 1948 and features a map of pre-partition Palestine, lists Saca’s name on a plaque identifying major donors.
The FMLN, now the country’s largest opposition party, long has had ties to the PLO and opposed the embassy’s Jerusalem location. Last year, the FMLN-controlled municipality of San Salvador built a Yasser Arafat Park along the city’s Jerusalem Avenue, though Saca publicly distanced himself from the initiative.
Palestinian representatives have visited El Salvador in recent years, though the Foreign Ministry has refused to reveal if they used their Palestinian-issued diplomatic passports. Nicaragua is the only Central American country to officially recognize Palestine, though El Salvadoran officials have hinted since Saca took office that diplomatic recognition could be forthcoming.
Saca’s move came as no surprise to Israeli officials in the region. It long had been expected that if Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner, moved Costa Rica’s embassy — as he promised early in his presidential campaign — Saca would follow suit.
Arias, who took office in May after a narrow electoral victory, announced the embassy relocation on Aug. 16 at a ceremony marking his first 100 days in office.
Arias’ announcement upset Costa Rica’s 4,000-member Jewish community, particularly as it came in the first hours after Israel’s cease-fire with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
El Salvador’s 300-member mainly Conservative Jewish community generally has supported ARENA, which traditionally has relied on coffee and industrial oligarchies for leadership.
There are an estimated 60,000 people of Palestinian descent, mainly Christian, in El Salvador. Saca, the grandson of immigrants, has drawn on that community for his inner political circle, with ARENA’s traditional powers given a lesser role.
Saca made no public comments on the decision, which was announced by the Foreign Ministry while Saca was en route to Florida to visit with El Salvadoran immigrants there.