Santiago Pena, the 44-year-old economist and former finance minister, won Paraguay’s recent presidential election, returning the conservative Colorado Party to government. The new president will take office in August. During the election campaign he said that, if elected, he will return the Paraguayan Embassy to occupied Jerusalem. The embassy was moved back to Tel Aviv in 2018, causing anger in Israel and leading to the closure of the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion.
“The State of Israel recognises Jerusalem as its capital,” said Pena in March. “The seat of the parliament is in Jerusalem, the president is in Jerusalem. So who are we to question where they establish their own capital?”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not given up on having Jerusalem recognised worldwide as Israel’s capital. Under international law, the city is occupied territory, and neither Israel’s annexation nor declaration that it is the occupation state’s “undivided capital” is accepted by the vast majority of countries. Netanyahu spoke with president-elect Pena directly to congratulate him on his election victory and put pressure on him to move the Paraguayan embassy to Jerusalem.
“There are efforts between the two countries to end their diplomatic crisis that has existed since 2018 when former President Mario Abdo Panitis decided to return the embassy to Tel Aviv after it moved to Jerusalem,” said Itamar Eichner, the political correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
According to Israeli affairs specialist Dr Adnan Abu Amer, the issue of moving the Paraguayan embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv prompted a diplomatic crisis between Paraguay and Israel. “The Latin American country confirmed at the time its intensive diplomatic efforts to achieve a comprehensive, lasting and just peace in the Middle East,” he pointed out, “despite the American pressure to cancel the decision and return its embassy to Jerusalem.”
The Israeli occupation state continues to put pressure on many countries to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, he added. “It has succeeded with some of them and failed with others. Now it is the turn of Paraguay.”
Pena visited Jerusalem a year and a half ago and met with Netanyahu and the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Professor Amir Yaron. He does not hide his friendship with Israel.
Paraguay is a country of around seven million people located between Brazil and Argentina; it is one of the poorest countries in South America. Despite its lack of any significant political weight in world affairs, it is a member of the UN General Assembly where its voice can serve Israeli interests.
“There is great potential for exchange and cooperation between Paraguay and Israel, and Paraguay will continue to defend Israel’s right to a peaceful existence,” wrote the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in April. “In fact, there is a long relationship of friendship between our nations. Paraguay’s vote at the United Nations in 1947 was the one that gave the majority for the recognition of Israel as an independent state. These close ties were not, nor are they now, subject to the status of Jerusalem.”
Following the US and Guatemala, Paraguay was the third country to have an embassy in Jerusalem when president Horacio Cortes moved the mission there in 2018. Honduras and Kosovo followed suit.
According to Bishara Bahbah, author of Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection, it is no accident that most of these countries are from Central and South America. “Although ideologically they may not feel strongly about the embassy issue, they know that they can curry favour with the US by supporting Israel strongly.”
Will Santiago Pena keep his promise when he takes office in August? If Paraguay’s embassy does move back to Jerusalem, that would mean that more than half of the foreign embassies in the occupied city are from Latin America. This is a wake-up call for the Palestine and its supporters across the rest of the continent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.