President Oscar Arias’ recent announcement that the country will move its embassy from the disputed city of Jerusalem, which Israel calls its capital, to Tel Aviv has evoked strong reactions from groups in Costa Rica and abroad.
Costa Rican officials call the move a long-overdue decision to place the country in compliance with decades of United Nations resolutions. Jewish organizations call it an ill-timed affront that could be interpreted as support for terrorist groups.
For moderate Arab nations, it’s a commendable step toward reestablishing cordial relations between their countries and Costa Rica, which was one of only two countries in the world to have an embassy in Jerusalem.
Arias’ desire to relocate the diplomatic site came as no big surprise when it was announced last week; it was among his campaign promises.
Members of the Jewish community, however, question the timing of Arias’ announcement, made after a month of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, and just days after the cease-fire between the forces took effect.
Veteran Costa Rican diplomat Jaime Daremblum, who served as the country’s ambassador to the United States from 1998-2004, was among those who criticized Arias’ decision.
“As a Costa Rican of the Jewish faith, I think there is much more at stake here than just moving an embassy,” he told The Tico Times in a telephone interview from Washington. “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.”
Jewish organizations in Costa Rica and the United States echoed this reaction. Dina Siegel Vann, director of Latino and Latin American Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told The Tico Times Arias’ assurances that he still hopes to maintain a friendly relationship with Israel provide little comfort.
“We’re very, very disappointed,” she said. “Even though the President said he wanted to keep the channels (open), wants the relationship with Israel to continue growing and doesn’t foresee any changes in the tone of the relationship – one thing is what you say, and the other thing is what you do.”
Siegel said the committee is canceling a planned mission to Costa Rica in November as a result of the embassy move, though she does not foresee any organized reaction by Jews against Costa Rican tourism or products as a result of the decision.
Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, said he spoke by phone Friday with his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, and that while she said she wished Costa Rica hadn’t relocated the embassy, the conversation was cordial and the ministers made plans for further discussion of their bilateral agenda. He also said he’s received positive feedback from Arab leaders, but did not have a list of those countries on hand.
Lebanese Honorary Consul Albert Karam said his country received the news “with applause” and added that the decision provides a basis for renewing diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and the moderate Arab world. Relations were severed in 1982 when Costa Rica moved its embassy to the disputed city.
“It’s a first step,” he told The Tico Times. “Relations were interrupted for many years…the obstacle was (the location of) the embassy. With this, relations will become cordial again.” Today, Costa Rica has diplomatic relations only with Morocco, Algeria and Qatar. It has consular relations with Lebanon and Jordan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Miguel Díaz said the embassy has not yet moved, since the government is seeking an appropriate site in Tel Aviv.
Stagno held a press conference Aug. 17 to explain the background of the United Nations’ and Costa Rica’s positions on Jerusalem, a territory both Israel and neighboring Palestine have long claimed as their own. In 1980, Israel passed a law establishing “Jerusalem, complete and united” as the country’s capital, according to documents provided by the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry. The U.N. Security Council responded by announcing it would not recognize this law because of the dispute over the city’s sovereignty, and calling on member states to withdraw diplomatic representatives from Jerusalem.
Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo complied and moved the embassy to Tel Aviv. In 1982, however, his successor, Luis Alberto Monge, ordered the embassy back to Jerusalem as his first official act upon taking office, stating that Costa Rica respects the rights of all sovereign nations to choose their own capitals.
“It happened that (Monge’s) wife was Jewish,” Rodrigo X. Carrera, Costa Rica’s former envoy to Israel, said in an interview several years ago. “Everybody thought that was the reason, but actually this had nothing to do with it… I have never seen it written that a capital has to be recognized by the world.”
El Salvador followed suit in 1984, and the Arab League called on its member states to reconsider their relations with the two Central American countries, both of which maintained their stance despite multiple U.N. resolutions reiterating the call to withdraw to Tel Aviv.
“Until now, our actions have been deplored by the United Nations, but now we are up to date with its requests,” Stagno said.
An Issue of Timing?
The ZionistIsraeliCenter of Costa Rica, along with the American Jewish Committee, depicted Arias’ decision as a concession to international pressure that could be seen as an expression of support for Israel’s opponents.
“In light of recent events, one could erroneously interpret that there is tacit support for terrorist organizations that seek the elimination of a sovereign and independent state,” Gustavo Prifer and Jacobo Milgram, president and secretary of the Israeli Center, wrote in an opinion piece published in the daily La Nación.
Arias, who said last week Costa Rica’s earlier stance was a mistake and that this decision “is about international law” (TT, Aug. 18), told La Nación this week that any suggestion that Costa Rica supports terrorism is “idiotic.”
“There’s no country that could be in favor of terrorism, and the last (country) that could condone terrorism is this centenary democracy,” he said.
Asked why the administration didn’t make the move earlier, given that Arias has spoken in favor of the change for years, Stagno said the administration didn’t want to make an immediate change as Monge did in 1982, and that after hostilities began between Israel and Hezbollah in July the moment was clearly “inopportune.”
Once a cease-fire was signed last week, “we wanted to take advantage of that moment of the truce to make the decision,” Stagno said Wednesday.
Daremblum suggested Arias made the move to curry favor with Arab nations as he seeks a Costa Rican seat on the U.N. Security Council. Stagno, when asked whether this was a motivation, said that Costa Rica has achieved a seat on the council twice before and “in neither case was having or not having the support of Arab countries an obstacle.”
Arias told the press last week he received a phone call from Shimon Peres – Israeli Vice-Premier and former Prime Minister, and Arias’ fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate – who asked Arias to reconsider the decision.
“He is a good friend, a dear friend,” Arias said. “But, well, that is life.When one makes decisions, it doesn’t always suit everybody.”
Elías Antonio Saca, President of El Salvador, now the only country with an embassy in Jerusalem, said last week that El Salvador will not move its embassy “until a change is opportune,” though he stated “the government is open to consider this situation,” according to wire service ACAN-EFE.
He also said that “any decision about the location of the Salvadoran diplomatic site, given the context in the Middle East, must seek… to support the peace process of the area and not affect the fragile and delicate equilibrium that is being established in the region.”
According to Lebanese consul Karam, who said his government is in the process of reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Costa Rica, the benefits of Arias’ decision will include increased trade. Coffee, bananas, sugar and pineapple from Costa Rica are among the products that could be exchanged on a larger scale, he said, adding that his consulate would be expanded to an embassy.
Costa Rica trades with 13 Arab countries, exporting $1-2.5 million per year between 2001 and 2005 and maintaining a positive balance of trade during most of the past decade, according to the Foreign Trade Ministry. Both imports to and exports from Arab countries increased steadily in recent years.
Tico Times Online Editor Amanda Roberson and correspondent Larry Luxner contributed to this article.