Paraguay to follow US and move embassy in Israel to Jerusalem

Paraguay is to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by the end of May, the Israeli foreign ministry has confirmed, making it the third country to do so after the United States and Guatemala.

Paraguay’s foreign ministry and the office of the president, Horacio Cartes, could not confirm or deny the news. Cartes was in a meeting with his foreign minister, a press spokesperson said.

Cartes is due to visit Israel a week after the US embassy relocates to Jerusalem on 14 May.

Donald Trump recognised the city as Israel’s capital in December – a decision that angered Palestinians, was condemned by 128 countries in a non-binding UN vote, and was met with praise in Israel.

Q&A

Why is recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital so contentious?

Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, none is as sensitive as the status of Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.

Seventy years ago, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. In the war of 1948 it was divided, like Berlin in the cold war, into western and eastern sectors under Israeli and Jordanian control respectively. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern side, expanded the city’s boundaries and annexed it – an act that was never recognised internationally.

Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, as its “united and eternal” capital. For their part, the Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. The unequivocal international view, accepted by all previous US administrations, is that the city’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations.

Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital puts the US out of step with the rest of the world, and legitimises Israeli settlement-building in the east – considered illegal under international law.


Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP
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Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, announced in March that his country would also transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Paraguay’s move was immediately criticised by Palestinian officials. Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told the AP: “This decision is against international law and supports the Israeli occupation.”

The move – taken in what are likely the final weeks of Cartes’s presidency – is also likely to prove controversial in Paraguay.

“It’s an error from every point of view,” said Carlos Mateo Balmelli, a respected figure within the opposition Liberal party. “It will provoke the Arab world, and involve us in a conflict, at a time when we should all be building bridges.”

Paraguay has always been a close ally of Israel, he added. “But we Paraguayans don’t want to echo the policy of Donald Trump,” Balmelli said.

Christopher Sabatini, an expert in Latin America’s international relations at Columbia University, said: “As with Guatemala, this is a clearly a way to curry favour with the United States. It’s unclear what Paraguay gets from the move.”

US aid to Paraguay has been declining, and Sabatini suggested that the embassy move could anger Paraguay’s sizable Lebanese community, concentrated around the border area with Brazil and Paraguay, which has previously been linked to fundraising for Hezbollah.

A European diplomat in Asunción also suggested that the relocation lacked a clear practical explanation.

“I think this is very personal for Cartes and has more to do with his own links to Israel and Netanyahu,” he said. “The US are providing the cover rather than the motive.”

Paraguay’s president was the first in the country’s history to visit Israel in 2016, striking up a close relationship with his Israeli counterpart. Benjamin Netanyahu then promised to include Paraguay on his next Latin American tour.

The incoming president, Mario Abdo Benítez, the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant, has been a fierce critic of many of Cartes’s policies, despite being a senator from the same conservative Colorado party.

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