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Left and Right Vie in El Salvador, and Both Candidates Are Palestinian

March 18, 2004
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El Salvador’s tightest presidential campaign since the conclusion of its civil war ends Sunday, with the two leading candidates boasting Palestinian roots and diametrically opposed ideologies.

Both Antonio Saca, the candidate from the ruling, right-wing ARENA Party, and Schafik Handal, the opposition candidate who was a guerrilla with the left-wing FMLN group, are descended from Palestinian immigrants and are active in the local Palestinian community.

The parties were bitter enemies during the 1980s: ARENA’s base was its commitment to fight communism, while the FMLN began as a Marxist-Leninist rebel movement.

Polls show Saca with a lead but Handal running second in the four-man field, and a run-off next month is possible.

Energetic crowds like the one here wait for several hours for a Handal rally, and erupt in squeals normally reserved for rock stars when he does arrive. That has boosted FMLN spirits, though ARENA has handily won the last three elections.

While the political, social and economic future is what matters most to voters in this Central American nation, the elections may mark an end to El Salvador’s embassy in Jerusalem. Only El Salvador and Costa Rica have embassies in the disputed city, which is Israel’s capital.

El Salvador’s Arab community is estimated at 60,000, with most members devout Catholics with roots in the West Bank.

The local Jewish community, which traditionally supports ARENA, is loosely organized and believed to number fewer than 250 people.

There is little love lost between the FMLN and Israel, which officially and covertly supported El Salvador’s government during the bloody civil war that ended in 1993. The embassy was moved to Jerusalem in a sign of gratitude, while the FMLN developed ties with rebel groups worldwide, reportedly including the Palestine Liberation Organization.

From the onset of the campaign, Handal has stated clearly that if elected he will move the embassy out of Jerusalem but will maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. That does not put the longtime Israeli ambassador to El Salvador, Yosef Livne, at ease.

He fears that good relations El Salvador and Israel have enjoyed over the last two decades could be jeopardized if Handal wins.

The FMLN is evasive on the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state. Nidia Diaz, a member of the party’s political committee and a former rebel commander, said the country would follow the lead of the United Nations, but called Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat the “president of the Palestinian state.”

Saca, 39 and a popular former soccer announcer, is cryptic about the embassy’s future. He ducks questions by responding that he is in El Salvador and sees no reason to bring Middle Eastern troubles to his war-ravaged country.

Privately, Saca campaign aides admit that he probably would prefer to move the embassy, but likely won’t do so for fear of offending the United States, ARENA’s traditional ally.

But others say that if 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias becomes Costa Rica’s president in 2006 and fulfills his vow to move its embassy, it would be easier for Saca to follow suit.

Both candidates contributed last year to the building of “Palestine Plaza,” a small park in a posh neighborhood of the capital of San Salvador just a few blocks from the opulent Salvadoran Arab Club.

The park, dedicated to Palestinians uprooted by the creation of Israel in 1948, sports a Palestinian flag, a map of the British mandate of Palestine and a plaque bearing Handal’s and Saca’s names.

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