TEL AVIV — Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González Sanz visited Israel for the first time last week, spending three days in the Jewish state in a bid to cement already strong bilateral relations and boost fledgling Israeli-Costa Rican business ties.
The visit comes at a critical time for the Middle East in general, and for Israel in particular.
For many years, Costa Rica was one of only a handful of nations that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2006, then-President Oscar Arias relocated the mission to Tel Aviv, the country’s financial center and biggest metropolitan area, in a bid to win trust — and business — in the Arab world. That forced El Salvador, the only other country that still had an embassy in Jerusalem, to pull out, too.
González’s departure coincides with the arrival in Israel of U.S. President Donald Trump, who enticed Jewish voters during the 2016 election campaign by promising, among other things, to transfer the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Obviously it’s a complete coincidence,” González told The Tico Times during a press conference at Tel Aviv’s elegant Norman Hotel. “Where we have the embassy in Israel was a matter of discussion for a long time. All the pros and cons were considered. President Arias decided to follow the path of most countries and move it to Tel Aviv, and I don’t think that has necessarily changed our relationship. It has worked out very well since then. There are many deeper aspects to it than where to locate the embassy.”
González added: “The reality is that this decision was taken by another administration, but our relationship with Israel is just as deep and profound as when the embassy was in Jerusalem.”
That didn’t stop Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s right-wing deputy minister of foreign affairs, from urging Costa Rica to move its mission back to Jerusalem in a public speech welcoming González to Israel.
Her appeal — which is unlikely to be heeded, considering that even Trump is now backtracking on his widely hyped vow to move the U.S. Embassy — came during a reception organized by Esteban Penrod, Costa Rica’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, that attracted 160 dignitaries, local journalists and expatriate ticos living in Israel.
Among the guests in attendance were Yoed Magen, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Central America, Mexico and Caribbean department; Ariel Goldgewicht, the Costa Rica-born director of the Jewish National Fund’s Latin American division; and Dyana Cordero, director of Costa Rica’s trade office here.
In 2015, said Cordero, bilateral trade reached $45 million. Of that, $36.7 million comprised Israeli exports to Costa Rica (mainly plastics, herbicides and pesticides), and $8.2 million represented Costa Rican exports to Israel, mainly coffee and pineapple juice concentrate.
That’s still a far cry from the $230 million in annual trade in years past, when Intel had a factory in Costa Rica and the company — which also has R&D facilities in Israel — virtually dominated trade between the two countries.
Next month, Pedro Beirute Prada, the CEO of Procomer, Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Promotion Agency, will come here to sign a memo of understanding regarding services, according to Cordero, who founded the Costa Rican-Israeli Chamber of Commerce in 2015 and lives in Tel Aviv.
In his remarks to journalists, González explained the timing of his visit, which also included a side trip to Bethlehem— a city that falls under Palestinian jurisdiction — as well as neighboring Jordan. A scheduled visit to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority, was cancelled at the last minute for security reasons.
“This is a visit that I probably should have done before, but the conditions were not there,” he said. “Planning a trip like this takes a lot of time and preparation. It’s not something you improvise from one day to the next. My agenda is busy, and we were also waiting for the new ambassador to take office, so the conditions are right now.”
He added: “Israel is a very close friend of ours, but next May, the government will change, and we don’t know if the next administration will have a visit like this.”
During his visit, González met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Reuvin Rivlin, as well as Michael Oren, the country’s deputy foreign minister for diplomacy and former ambassador to the United States.
He also toured the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, as well as the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. In the port city of Jaffa south of Tel Aviv, González stopped by the Peres Center for Peace, a nonprofit organization founded by the late Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, that encourages dialogue between Arabs and Jews.
Asked by a local journalist how he felt about coming to a country as heavily militarized as Israel, González noted that 1948 — the year the State of Israel was established — was also the year that Costa Rica, under President José Figueres Ferrer, famously disbanded its army.
“Costa Ricans feel very comfortable living in a country that took this very difficult decision 69 years ago to abolish its armed forces and dedicate those resources to human development, principally education and health. It’s an investment that has given us important dividends,” said the foreign minister. “We also understand that for countries in difficult situations, it could be much more complicated. But in 1948, when we made this decision, most countries in Latin America were under dictatorship or civil war.”
Magen noted proudly that Costa Rica was “among the nations that helped Israel even before the creation of Israel, back in 1947, when it appointed a special ambassador to visit different Latin American capitals and convince those countries to support the partition of Palestine.” A year later, this led to Israel’s establishment.
“Ever since, we’ve had excellent relations with all Costa Rican governments,” said Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Panama and Colombia. “The fact that Costa Rica decided in 1982 to turn down the UN’s recommendation and not move its embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv meant a lot to Israel.”
He added that even though Costa Rica eventually fell in line and transferred its embassy out of Israel’s capital, “it’s been 10 years already, and we’ve moved on. We’ve tried to fill these relations with content, especially cooperation in the fields of health, education and agriculture. We still have many friends in Costa Rica, and the Jewish community there is pretty influential. Many Israelis visit Costa Rica every year, and some Israeli entrepreneurs have initiated projects in Costa Rica, mainly in tourism.”
Penrod, who took over as Costa Rica’s ambassador here four years ago from now-retired veteran diplomat Rodrigo X. Carreras, said Israel seeks Costa Rica’s help in fighting what it views as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.
Israel also quietly trying to restore relations with countries that severed ties with the Jewish state in recent years — a list that includes Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. In late March, Israel restored ties with Nicaragua after a seven-year break; an unidentified Central American country reportedly acted as a go-between in getting the Sandinista government to reconsider its previously hostile stance toward Israel.
While the Netanyahu government is unlikely to convince the Solís administration to return its embassy to Jerusalem, González said Costa Rica will continue to have Israel’s back at the UN with regard to any future Middle East peace initiative.
“With Israel, we share the values of democracy, and the defense of liberty and fundamental rights,” he said. “We cannot have close relations with countries that don’t share our values.”
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is a longtime correspondent for The Tico Times.