JTA / August 17, 2006
By Larry Luxner
The condominium along Diskin Street is rather upscale, with little distinguishing it from the other apartment buildings in Jerusalem's Qiryat Wolfson neighborhood except for a few cars bearing diplomatic license plates parked out front.
Those cars belong to the Costa Rican Embassy — one of only two foreign embassies in Jerusalem.
Along with El Salvador, the government of Costa Rica has for years been alone in the world in officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
But on Wednesday, President Oscar Arias Sánchez shocked Israel and angered Costa Rica's 4,000 Jews with his announcement that he would close Costa Rica's embassy in Jerusalem immediately and transfer Ambassador Noemi Baruch and her staff to Tel Aviv.
"The decision is consistent with the obligations of international law and the resolutions of the United Nations, which for 24 years Costa Rica has disregarded by maintaining its diplomatic representation in Jerusalem," said a communique issued Wednesday in San José by Costa Rica's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It further states that "Costa Rica, as a peace-loving country, hopes that this decision will contribute to the reinforcement of its customary willingness to abide by international norms and to the coherence of its external foreign policy. We are attempting to amend our historical responsiblity and ratify our commitment to international norms."
Arias, in fulfilling a promise he made before being elected president earlier this year, said that moving Costa Rica's embassy to Tel Aviv "would rectify an historic error that has hurt our reputation on an international level and has deprived us of friendship with the Arab world and Islamic civilization, which shares our values of liberty, democracy and human rights."
Veteran Costa Rican diplomat Jaime Daremblum said he was deeply saddened by the news.
"As a Costa Rican of the Jewish faith, I think there is much more at stake here than just moving an embassy," Daremblum told JTA. "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."
The decision came less than 48 hours after the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon took effect, and barely a week after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez threatened to break diplomatic relations with Israel altogether in the wake of its month-long conflict in Lebanon.
Daremblum, Costa Rica's ambassador in Washington from 1998 to 2004, said the move should come as no surprise for those who have followed the speeches of Arias Sánchez, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1990s for his efforts to bring peace to war-torn Central America.
"About five years ago, some news agencies reported that President Arias had indicated to audiences in the Middle East that if he became president again, he would move the embassy out of Jerusalem," said Daremblum, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "What he wants is anybody's guess. Apparently he wants to push for a Costa Rican seat in the UN Security Council."
Reaction from Jewish organizations in the United States was swift and angry.
"We are profoundly disappointed by Costa Rica's decision to move its embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv," said a statement issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Costa Rica and Israel are sister democracies with a long history of good bilateral relations, a fact which only deepens our disappointment. To make such an announcement after Israel has spent a month in intense combat with Hezbollah, when democracies must stand together against Islamic terror, sends the wrong signal to the world."
The American Jewish Committee also registered its anger.
"Costa Rica has long been a stalwart supporter of Israel and courageously set an example for the world by maintaining its embassy in the country's capital city of Jerusalem," said AJCommittee Executive Director David A. Harris. "The timing of this decision by President Arias just after a ceasefire on the Lebanon front — following Hezbollah's murderous assault on Israel — could, however unintentionally, be interpreted as tacit support for those who seek to harm the Jewish state."
At one time, 12 Latin American countries and the Netherlands had their embassies in Jerusalem. In 1980, the UN passed Resolution 478, calling for the removal of all embassies in that city. Costa Rica's Ministry of Foreign Affairs complied, but the ambassador at the time procrastinated for a year and a half.
For a six-month period, Costa Rica maintained a phantom embassy in Tel Aviv. But in May 1982, Luís Alberto Monge was inaugurated president, and his first official act was to move the embassy back to Jerusalem.
"It happened that the president's wife was Jewish. Everybody thought that was the reason, but actually this had nothing to do with it," said Rodrigo X. Carrera, Costa Rica's former envoy to Israel, in an interview several years ago.
"I have never seen it written that a capital has to be recognized by the world," said Carrera, who has since been transferred back home. "Where an ambassador lives has nothing to do with where the capital is. Most ambassadors in Costa Rica don't actually live in San José. Every ambassador who comes to Israel has presented his credentials in Jerusalem. For official business, they don't go to Tel Aviv, they come to Jerusalem. And when heads of state come to Israel, do they stay in Tel Aviv? No, they stay at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
Actually, two other countries — Paraguay and Bolivia — have maintained embassies in Mevazerret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, but only Costa Rica and El Salvador had embassies in the city itself.
Despite Costa Rica's pending departure, El Salvador says it won't follow its neighbor's example for the moment — even though the country's president, Tony Saca, is of Palestinian descent.
"The decision of the government of Costa Rica merits the respect of all members of the international community," said a government deecree issued Wednesday in San Salvador. "For its part, El Salvador considers that any decision on the location of its embassy must support efforts towards peace in the Middle East and must not affect the fragile and delicate equilibrium that is being established in the region."