Behind Paraguay's decision to return its embassy to Tel Aviv

Analysts say that Palestinian and Paraguayan officials have worked behind closed doors to reverse the decision of the former administration to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

al-monitor A notice is placed on the closed doors of the Paraguayan Embassy in Jerusalem, Sept. 6, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Sep 10, 2018

When the small Latin American country of Paraguay decided Sept. 5 to return its embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, senior Palestinians officials in Ramallah were not totally surprised. They had done the hard coordinating work long before the announcement was made, and they were sure it was coming.

Along with Guatemala, Paraguay was one of the two countries that followed in the footsteps of the Donald Trump administration to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Former President Horacio Cartes, a businessman and close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came personally to Israel to inaugurate the embassy May 21 — a week after the United States made its controversial decision.

Counselor Hanan Jarrar, assistant to the Palestinian foreign minister of the Americas and the Caribbean, told Al-Monitor that the decision to return the embassy to Tel Aviv was the culmination of hard work behind the scenes. “We began receiving hints and suggestions early on that the newly elected Paraguayan administration was not happy with the decision. We were told early on that the decision by former President Cartes was done without even consulting with President-elect of Paraguay Mario Abdo Benitez, who was elected a month earlier on April 22.”

It would be four months before the newly elected president would be sworn in. Benitez, of Lebanese origin, was sworn in as president of Paraguay on Aug. 25, 2018.

Meanwhile, Paraguayan Ambassador to the UN Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez reached out to Palestinian envoy to the UN Riyad Mansour. A private meeting of Arab diplomats at the United Nations was organized with Ramirez, which resulted in positive reports from New York to Ramallah, Jarrar told Al-Monitor.

“We picked up on the positive comments coming from New York, and the Palestinian ambassador to Brazil, Ibrahim al-Zaben, whose diplomatic portfolio included Paraguay, was instructed by President Mahmoud Abbas to follow up with the new administration,” Jarrar added.

Zaben had a difficult assignment since Paraguay had taken a very anti-Palestinian decision. But again, the communications with the president-elect’s administration were very positive, and as a result, an invitation was extended to Abbas to attend the inauguration of President-elect Benitez.

The invitation caught Palestinian officials off guard. A visit by Abbas to Paraguay, which once had an embassy in Jerusalem, would be political suicide. The Palestinian president decided to send Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad Malki as his personal representative, who also happens to be fluent in Spanish, to represent Palestine at the inauguration Aug. 14 in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion. Ambassador Zaben was also called on to attend as well, Jarrar said.

The decision to attend the inauguration was not very popular. Palestinian public opinion attacked Abbas and the Palestinian government. “We kept quiet because we were sure that the visit would yield important results,” said Jarrar.

Malki was treated well during the inauguration, and the new president instructed his foreign minister, Luis Alberto Castiglioni, to coordinate all the moves with the Palestinians. Malki returned to Ramallah with the assurance that the embassy would return to Tel Aviv in a very short period, Jarrar said.

For their part, Palestinians had agreed to a request from Paraguay. “In response to their request, we promised to open a Palestinian Embassy in Asuncion so that the embassy can become a business bridge to the Arab world.”

Palestinian officials interviewed by Al-Monitor insisted that Paraguay’s decision was totally their own. “It was a sovereign decision by a country that had recognized the state of Palestine in 2011 and had excellent relations with Palestinians until the unilateral decision by the departing president,” one source familiar with Latin American policies told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

“They simply returned to their own policies in alignment with international law. They did this by their free will.”

The source, familiar with Palestinian politics in Latin America, added that the small South American country has always had good relations with Palestine, and the fact that the new president is of Lebanese origin meant that he was influenced by his own community to be on the right side of history.

Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee Saeb Erekat on Sept. 6 welcomed the decision. “We commend Paraguay's decision to act in accordance with its obligations under international law by closing its embassy in Jerusalem and relocating it to Tel Aviv.”

Erekat added, “President Mario Abdo Benitez's courageous decision shows that the government of Asuncion has chosen to go back to the traditional Latin American position of respect for international law and UN resolutions.”

Erekat called upon the countries that have supported Palestine, specifically Arab countries, to look together into ways to encourage cooperation and bilateral relations with Paraguay. Paraguay is a major meat producer and has been eyeing exports to Arab and Asian countries. Paraguay’s meat export industry is said to be the sixth-largest in the world. Paraguay overtook Argentina and the European Union in 2017 with 380,000 tons of exports.

The decision of Paraguay was met with an abrupt Israeli decision to close its embassy in Paraguay. At the same time, Turkey decided to follow the Palestinian example and open an embassy in Asuncion. World politics is often carried out based on the interests of peoples. The story of the reversal of the Paraguayan decision shows that Arab countries and their supporters have tremendous powers if they choose to use them correctly.

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