After 1st election round, fate of Guatemala’s Jerusalem embassy hangs in balance
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After 1st election round, fate of Guatemala’s Jerusalem embassy hangs in balance

Frontrunner Sandra Torres has vowed not to relocate mission back to Tel Aviv, but local Jewish leader says there is ‘no guarantee’; Israeli candidate comes in sixth

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Sandra Torres, presidential candidate of the National Unity of Hope party, UNE, poses for photographers while casting her vote during general elections in Guatemala City, June 16, 2019.  (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
Sandra Torres, presidential candidate of the National Unity of Hope party, UNE, poses for photographers while casting her vote during general elections in Guatemala City, June 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

After the first round of presidential elections in Guatemala Sunday, it remains unclear whether the Latin America country would keep its Israel embassy in Jerusalem or move it back to Tel Aviv.

Guatemala traditionally has close ties with the Jewish state, and the two leading candidates have given no indication that they plan to relocate the embassy, but local Israel supporters say that the issue could still come up in the weeks and months to come.

A country of 17 million in Central America, Guatemala is so far the only other country, besides the US, that operates an embassy in the Israeli capital.

On Sunday, former first lady Sandra Torres, from the center-left National Unity of Hope party, came in first in the presidential elections, having garnered a quarter of all votes cast. On August 11, she will face off against runner-up Alejandro Giammattei from the conservative Vamos list.

During a turbulent election campaign that saw several top candidates barred from running, Torres said that she was “in favor of Guatemala’s embassy remaining in Jerusalem” and vowed to continue strengthening bilateral relations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales attend a reception at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on May 16, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

However, a Guatemalan source, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said they believe that Torres — who in 2015 ran against outgoing President Jimmy Morales — could easily be persuaded by Arab countries to transfer the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

Morales, a devout Christian and staunch supporter of Israel, was barred from running in the elections due to term limits.

Last year, Morales decided to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving his country’s embassy there (it had moved from Jerusalem to Herzliya in 1980). Paraguay followed suit, but less than four months later, a new government walked back the decision and transferred the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

At the time, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest organization of Muslim states, stated “its determination to take political, economic and other measures against countries which recognize Al-Quds [Jerusalem] as the so-called capital of Israel or relocate their embassies thereto.”

The group called on all member states to halt the import of cardamom from Guatemala and “not to conduct high level visits to this country or to organize joint cultural, sportive or artistic events” until its embassy is removed from Jerusalem.

Guatemala is one of the world’s leading exporters of cardamon, which is considered among the most expensive spices in the world.

Very little is known about what Giammattei, the runner-up in Sunday’s election, thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but analysts estimate he may want to leave the embassy in Jerusalem.

Indeed, most presidential hopefuls expressed support for Morales’ Jerusalem decision, according to Rebeca de Sabbagh, the vice president of the country’s Jewish community.

Rebeca de Sabbagh, the vice president of Guatemala’ Jewish community, attends the opening of Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem, May 16, 2018 (Gloria Garces)

“Specifically for the Evangelical communities that openly supported the return of the Embassy to Jerusalem, and which represent about 50 percent of the population, it is my impression that it is an important consideration if the future president keeps or not the embassy in Jerusalem,” she told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Only one of the leading candidates — former Guatemalan diplomat and senior United Nations official Edmond Mulet — said that even though Jerusalem was Israel’s capital it was not necessary and contrary to UN resolutions to move the embassy there prior to a final peace agreement. Mulet came in third in Sunday’s race.

Isaac Farchi, a dual Guatemalan-Israeli citizen who lived in Ra’anana for more than a decade before returning to the Latin American country in a bid to become its president, came in sixth, garnering 250,533 votes — nearly 6 percent.

Farchi, who was born in Guatemala and in his youth was involved with the local Jewish community, ran for the center-right VIVA party, promising to root out widespread corruption. In March, he told Ynet news site that he would move back to Israel if he fails to win the presidency.

En el Cierre de Campaña de #VIVA el apóstol #RomeoGuerra junto al pastor #MardoqueoFuentes dirigieron palabras y agradecieron a Dios por la finalización exitosa de la campaña. Estuvieron presentes #IsaacFarchi y #RicardoFlores, binomio presidencial así como el Secretario General de VIVA #ArmandoCastillo y los diputados #AníbalRojas y #JuanManuelDiazDuran.

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Partido VIVA‎‏ ב- יום שישי, 14 ביוני 2019

One of his final campaign events took place at the capital’s Israel Square, in front of a huge Star of David, but he failed to get the Jewish community’s backing.

‘No guarantee with regards to the Guatemalan Embassy’

Morales moving the embassy to Jerusalem was — and continues to be — a “widely supported decision by the Guatemalan population,” de Sabbagh said.

“Alliances will most likely need to take place to assure a victory of either of the two [remaining] candidates, so there is no guarantee of what may happen with regards to the Guatemalan Embassy,” said de Sabbagh, who attended the May 16, 2018. opening of the country’s mission in Jerusalem’s Malha Technological Park.

“We are, in any case, hopeful that Guatemala will elect a president that will respect that returning the embassy to Jerusalem was a decision of state, and keep the embassy where it rightfully belongs: in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital,” she added.

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