By Jason Lemon
Paraguay has announced that it will move its embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv, less than four months after it relocated to Jerusalem. In response, Israel has shuttered its embassy in Asunción and recalled its ambassador for consultation.
“Paraguay wants to contribute to an intensification of regional diplomatic efforts to achieve a broad, fair and lasting peace in the Middle East,” the South American country’s Foreign Minister Luis Alberto Castiglioni said on Wednesday, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly criticized the decision, saying that his nation “views with great severity the unusual decision of Paraguay, which will cloud bilateral relations,” according to The Times of Israel.
The embassy’s relocation was carried out under the administration of former President Horacio Cartes, who left office last month. The decision made the Latin American country the third in the world, after the U.S. and Guatemala, to open an embassy in the historic city, which is recognized by Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.
The U.S. became the world’s first country to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel back in December. Washington then moved its embassy to the historic city, opening the facility in May while Palestinians launched large-scale demonstrations in opposition. Israeli forces clashed with demonstrators, leaving dozens of protestors dead.
Cartes’s successor Mario Abdo Benitez, who is a member of the same conservative Colorado Party and the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant, has now reversed Paraguay’s controversial move. After the initial decision in May, Carlos Mateo Balmelli, a respected figure within Paraguay’s opposition Liberal party, called it “an error from every point of view.”
“It will provoke the Arab world, and involve us in a conflict, at a time when we should all be building bridges,” he said, The Guardian reported. “We Paraguayans don’t want to echo the policy of Donald Trump.”
The South American country is also home to a sizable population of immigrants from Lebanon, which views Israel as an enemy and does not have any official diplomatic ties with the neighboring nation. Reports have also suggested that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah runs operations in Paraguay, specifically in Cuidad del Este, which borders Argentina and Brazil.
The Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki had said two weeks ago that Paraguay had pledged to return the embassy to Tel Aviv, according to the Associated Press. Following the Wednesday announcement, Al-Malki hailed the decision as “a new Palestinian diplomatic achievement.”
Paraguay already officially recognizes Palestine as a state, along with 137 other countries that are members of the United Nations. Notably, the decision from Asuncion to send its embassy back to Tel Aviv comes just two days after Colombia’s new President Ivan Duque confirmed that he would not reverse the recent decision of his predecessor to officially recognize the statehood of Palestine, The Jerusalem Post reported.