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Costa Rican Decision on Embassy Leaves Supporters of Israel Angry

August 18, 2006
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The condominium along Diskin Street is rather upscale, with little distinguishing it from the other apartment buildings in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Wolfson neighborhood, except for a few cars bearing diplomatic license plates parked out front. Those cars belong to the Costa Rican Embassy. Along with El Salvador, the government of Costa Rica for years has been alone in the world in officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by placing its embassy there, rather than in Tel Aviv.

But on Wednesday, President Oscar Arias upset Israel and angered Costa Rica’s 4,000 Jews with his announcement that he would close the embassy in Jerusalem and transfer Ambassador Noemi Baruch and her staff to Tel Aviv.

"The decision is consistent with the obligations of international law and the resolutions of the United Nations, which for 24 years Costa Rica has disregarded by maintaining its diplomatic representation in Jerusalem," said a communique issued Wednesday in San Jose by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It further states that "Costa Rica, as a peace-loving country, hopes that this decision will contribute to the reinforcement of its customary willingness to abide by international norms and to the coherence of its external foreign policy. We are attempting to amend our historical responsibility and ratify our commitment to international norms."

In fulfilling a promise he made before being elected president earlier this year, Arias said that moving the embassy to Tel Aviv "would rectify an historic error that has hurt our reputation on an international level and has deprived us of friendship with the Arab world and Islamic civilization, which shares our values of liberty, democracy and human rights."

Veteran Costa Rican diplomat Jaime Daremblum said he was deeply saddened by the news.

"As a Costa Rican of the Jewish faith, I think there is much more at stake here than just moving an embassy," Daremblum told JTA on Wednesday. "There is a big struggle in the world, in which Israel has been the victim of international terrorism, and the timing of this decision by the Costa Rican government was really deplorable."

The decision came less than 48 hours after the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon took effect, and barely a week after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to break diplomatic relations with Israel in the wake of its monthlong conflict in Lebanon.

Daremblum, Costa Rica’s ambassador in Washington from 1998 to 2004, said the move should come as no surprise for those who have followed the speeches of Arias, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to bring peace to war-torn Central America.

"About five years ago, some news agencies reported that President Arias had indicated to audiences in the Middle East that if he became president again, he would move the embassy out of Jerusalem," said Daremblum, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "What he wants is anybody’s guess. Apparently he wants to push for a Costa Rican seat in the U.N. Security Council."

Reaction from Jewish organizations in the United States was swift and angry.

"We are profoundly disappointed by Costa Rica’s decision to move its embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv," said a statement issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Costa Rica and Israel are sister democracies with a long history of good bilateral relations, a fact which only deepens our disappointment. To make such an announcement after Israel has spent a month in intense combat with Hezbollah, when democracies must stand together against Islamic terror, sends the wrong signal to the world."

The American Jewish Committee also registered its anger.

"Costa Rica has long been a stalwart supporter of Israel and courageously set an example for the world by maintaining its embassy in the country’s capital city of Jerusalem," the group’s executive director, David Harris, said.

"The timing of this decision by President Arias just after a cease-fire on the Lebanon front — following Hezbollah’s murderous assault on Israel — could, however unintentionally, be interpreted as tacit support for those who seek to harm the Jewish state."

At one time, 12 Latin American countries and the Netherlands had their embassies in Jerusalem. In 1980, the United Nations passed Resolution 478, calling for the removal of all embassies in Jerusalem. Costa Rica’s Foreign Affairs Ministry complied, but the ambassador at the time procrastinated for a year and a half.

For a six-month period, Costa Rica maintained a phantom embassy in Tel Aviv. But after Luis Alberto Monge was inaugurated as president in May 1982, his first official act was to move the embassy back to Jerusalem.

"It happened that the president’s wife was Jewish. Everybody thought that was the reason, but actually this had nothing to do with it," Rodrigo Carrera, Costa Rica’s former envoy to Israel, said in an interview several years ago.

"I have never seen it written that a capital has to be recognized by the world," said Carrera, who has since been transferred back home. "Where an ambassador lives has nothing to do with where the capital is. Most ambassadors in Costa Rica don’t actually live in San Jose. Every ambassador who comes to Israel has presented his credentials in Jerusalem. For official business, they don’t go to Tel Aviv, they come to Jerusalem. And when heads of state come to Israel, do they stay in Tel Aviv? No, they stay at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem."

Two other countries — Paraguay and Bolivia — have maintained embassies in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, but only Costa Rica and El Salvador had embassies in the city itself.

Despite Costa Rica’s pending departure, El Salvador says it won’t follow its neighbor’s example for the moment — even though the country’s president, Antonio Saca, is of Palestinian descent.

"The decision of the government of Costa Rica merits the respect of all members of the international community," said a government decree issued Wednesday in San Salvador. "For its part, El Salvador considers that any decision on the location of its embassy must support efforts towards peace in the Middle East and must not affect the fragile and delicate equilibrium that is being established in the region."

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