The Tico Times / August 16, 2000
By Larry Luxner
JERUSALEM -- The condominium along Diskin Street is rather upscale, but little distinguishes it from the other apartment buildings in Jerusalem's Qiryat Wolfson neighborhood except for a few cars with 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 is alone in the world in officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. All other countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel -- many of them dependent on Arab oil or fearful of losing Arab business connections -- keep their embassies an hour's drive to the west, in Tel Aviv.
"We've never had an ambassador who didn't live or work in Jerusalem," says a proud Rodrigo X. Carreras, Costa Rica's envoy here since late 1998.
It wasn't always that way, Carreras told The Tico Times.
"At one time, 13 countries had their embassies here -- 12 Latin American countries and the Netherlands," said Carreras, interviewed in his modest little office overlooking the Israel Museum and the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. "But in 1980, the United Nations passed Resolution 478, calling for the removal of all embassies in Jerusalem. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs complied, in spite of protests from many sectors of Costa Rican society, but the ambassador procrastinated for a year and a half."
Carreras, 52, graduated from the Universidad de Costa Rica, earning a degree in political science. He went on to earn a master's in political science from the University of California at Berkeley before beginning his diplomatic career. Carreras was Costa Rica's consul-general in San Francisco from 1972 to 1977, and served as ambassador to Brazil from 1982 to 1984, later joining the Figueres government as vice-minister of foreign affairs.
He said that for a six-month period, Costa Rica maintained a makeshift embassy in Tel Aviv. But in May 1982, Luís Alberto Monge was inaugurated president, and one of his first official acts 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 Carreras, justifying his government's decision. "That UN resolution followed the Knesset's decision to annex East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, and establish what was already a fact, that a united Jerusalem would be the home of the president and all other government institutions."
Carreras said the resolution passed 14-0 with the United States abstaining.
"The U.S. didn't veto the measure outright, because of threats by Egypt to pull out of the Camp David talks," he recalled, adding that UN Resolution 478 was never binding anyway because it "calls upon" member states to remove their embassies from Jerusalem. "For it to be binding, it would have had to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which refers to security matters."
In any event, Carreras argues that the Costa Rican Embassy is in West Jerusalem, which is largely Jewish and has been a part of Israel since the country's establishment in 1948. East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan during the Six-Day War of 1967, is predominantly Arab and has long been claimed by the Palestinians. In fact, the stated objective of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is the establishment of a State of Palestine by the end of this year, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
While that is certainly in dispute, most countries do recognize Israel's sovereignty over West Jerusalem, which is why Carreras can't understand why the rest of the world won't locate its embassies there.
"I have never seen it written that a capital has to be recognized by the world," he says. "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. They live in Escazú or Curridabat. 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 -- maintain embassies in Mevazerret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, but only Costa Rica and El Salvador have embassies in the city itself.
Both countries were honored at a recent event here promoting recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
At the dinner, the B'nai B'rith World Center paid tribute to the foreign minister of El Salvador, Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Avila, who delivered an address titled "The Peace Process in El Salvador and its Contribution to Democracy." She was joined by Marisol Argueta, foreign ministry director-general for external relations; Ernesto Arrieta Peralta, ambassador-designate of El Salvador to Israel, and by two representatives of the Salvadoran Jewish community.
"The presence of the embassy of El Salvador in our capital is a gesture of friendship that is not lost on the leaders and people of the State of Israel," said Naor Yerushalmi, chairman of the B'nai B'rith World Center.
Also invited to the event were the ambassadors of two countries that used to have embassies in Jerusalem but have since moved them to Tel Aviv: Olmeda Rivera of Honduras and Manuel Morales of the Dominican Republic.
"Sometimes I have wondered how important it is for the Israelis that two small Central American countries maintain their embassies in Jerusalem," said Carreras, noting that Costa Rica has paid a heavy price for its solidarity with the Jewish state. "We used to have diplomatic relations with most countries in the Arab world, but now there's nothing going on. There's no contact at all."
That's what almost happened to Guatemala, when in the early 1990s then-President Ramiro de León Carpio -- a strong supporter of Israel -- announced he would move his country's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia threatened to take revenge by boycotting its imports of Guatemalan cardamom -- a move that would have decimated the industry.
Eduardo González, Guatemala's economics minister, later tried to soften the blow by saying Guatemala could market its cardamom through brokers in Third World countries. Yet Guatemalan later backed off from the decision, and its embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Said a spokesman at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington: "The threat of a boycott by the Arab world definitely made our government think twice about moving the embassy to Jerusalem."
While Costa Rica has little commerce with the Arab world, bilateral trade between Costa Rica and Israel -- which traditionally hovered around $5 million a year -- this year has shot up to over $30 million. That's largely thanks to the recent inauguration of an Intel factory in Qiryat Gat, south of Tel Aviv. Wafers manufactured at that facility are flown to Intel's sprawling Costa Rican plant, where final products are assembled and exported.
It helps that Costa Rica has one of Central America's largest and most influential Jewish communities, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Jews living in the San José area.
"Very few Costa Rican Jews live in Israel," said Carreras, "precisely because in Costa Rica they don't have any reason to leave."