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Around the Jewish World Costa Rica’s Jews Upset by Timing of Embassy Move

August 24, 2006
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Costa Rica’s Jewish community reacted with disappointment, resignation and a bit of anger to the government’s decision to move its embassy in Israel out of Jerusalem. Costa Rican Jews had been prepared for the announcement, made last week by President Oscar Arias. However, they were upset by its timing, less than 72 hours after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect in southern Lebanon. Arias, who took office in May, had promised during his campaign to move the embassy.

"The Jewish community of Costa Rica considers the president’s decision to be inopportune since, in light of recent events, it could be erroneously interpreted as tacit support for terrorist organizations that aim for the elimination of a sovereign or independent state," the Orthodox, 2,500-member Israeli-Zionist Center, the country’s main synagogue, said in a rare public declaration.

In a statement published Saturday in La Nacion, Costa Rica’s major daily newspaper, Arias said his decision was based on "international legality" and aimed "to rectify a historic error that damages us on the international level and denies us almost all forms of friendship with the Arab world."

No predominantly Muslim country has an embassy in Costa Rica.

While the Jewish community leadership has been diplomatic in its response, some in the community openly questioned Arias’ action.

"What he did was a slap in the face," said community member Moises Flachler, who was particularly upset that Arias announced the move at a ceremony commemorating his 100th day in office.

The move came at a time of transition for Israeli diplomacy in Costa Rica. Long-time Ambassador Alexander Ben-Zvi returned to Israel at the end of his tour a week before the announcement. Ambassador-designate Ehud Eitan has yet to present his credentials.

Costa Rica had moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 1982 at the behest of Father Benjamin Nunez, a staunch Zionist, Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel and a founding member of Arias’ National Liberation Party. The embassy remained there during Arias’ first term in office from 1986 to 1990 and even after Nunez’s death in 1994.

Nunez’s son, Rodrigo Carreras — also a former ambassador to Israel — told JTA the decision was wrong because Costa Rica’s embassy is in western Jerusalem, which is not disputed territory, and because the timing gives "the world the image that the administration is giving backing to Hezbollah and Hamas."

Carreras noted that Arias is interested in winning a seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, something that might be thwarted by Arab opposition. But Carreras pointed out that when he served as deputy foreign minister in the mid-1990s, Costa Rica was able to win a seat on the Security Council despite keeping its embassy in Jerusalem.

Arias first raised the issue of moving the embassy before he launched his presidential campaign in earnest. He reiterated his desire to move the embassy just after announcing his candidacy, but deftly avoided the issue as February’s election approached. After winning a narrow victory, he had refused to comment on the issue until last week.

Most of Costa Rica’s estimated 4,000 Jews, including two current members of the Legislative Assembly, traditionally have supported National Liberation. However, most offered the party lukewarm support at best during this year’s tight presidential campaign.

Costa Rica’s decision leaves El Salvador as the only country with an embassy in Jerusalem. Though Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, most countries have their legations in Tel Aviv to avoid the diplomatically contentious issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The permanence of El Salvador’s embassy in Jerusalem is now also in doubt.

El Salvador’s president, Tony Saca, is of Palestinian descent and has expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause in the past. The country’s main opposition, the leftist ex-guerrillas of the FMLN, have a long history of ties with the PLO and support the creation of a Palestinian state.

In recent days, Saca has said El Salvador will not move its embassy in the near future, echoing past statements made both before and after taking office in 2004. Saca’s party, the right-wing ARENA party, considers the Jerusalem location a sign of gratitude to Israel for its support during El Salvador’s civil war, when much of the world scorned El Salvador’s human rights record.

However, Saca’s inner circle is made up of many members of the Palestinian community instead of ARENA’s normal power base of coffee and industrial oligarchs. Observers believe that with Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, moving Costa Rica’s embassy out of Jerusalem, Saca will soon follow suit.

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