New Colombian president: Palestine recognition ‘irreversible’

Ivan Duque says he would have liked more discussion of the matter, but won’t overturn predecessor’s lame-duck decision

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Colombia's outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos, center, welcoming newly sworn-in President Ivan Duque at the presidential palace, after his inauguration ceremony in Bogota, Colombia, August 7, 2018. (Colombia's presidential press office/ via AP)
Colombia's outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos, center, welcoming newly sworn-in President Ivan Duque at the presidential palace, after his inauguration ceremony in Bogota, Colombia, August 7, 2018. (Colombia's presidential press office/ via AP)

Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, on Monday said that he will not reverse his predecessor’s surprising decision last month to recognize a Palestinian state.

“Damage was done by the fact that there was not more institutional discussion. [Former] president [Juan Manuel] Santos told me that he had made that decision, but it is irreversible,” Duque told a local radio station.

“We would have benefited from more analyses [about the pros and cons of recognizing Palestine], but we should be part of the solution, not the problem,” Duque said.

Any government governs until it is replaced by its successor administration, and therefore Santos’s decision cannot be disputed and will stand, he said.

While the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on Duque’s statement, Deputy Minister Michael Oren said the Colombian president’s decision not to annul his predecessor’s lame-duck recognition of Palestine was “damaging” to Jerusalem’s longstanding friendship with Bogota.

“Even worse — the decision directly harms the peace process by giving the Palestinians free of charge what they could have received in exchange for concessions in future negotiations. So now, why should the Palestinians want to negotiate at all?” he said in a statement.

Deputy Minister Michael Oren at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)

“Perhaps the Colombians feel they are obligated to help the Palestinians,” Oren went on, “but in fact they are misleading them in the belief that they can achieve a Palestinian state without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.”

Colombia — Israel’s closest ally in South America — until last month was the only country on the continent that refused to recognize a Palestinian state.

Earlier this year, candidate Duque openly mulled moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem and vowed to further improve already close ties between Bogota and Jerusalem.

But just one day after Duque’s August 7 inauguration, news emerged that the outgoing Santos administration had quietly recognized a Palestinian state.

A few days earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced his plan to attend the new president’s inauguration in Bogota, but less than a week later, on August 2, he canceled the trip, citing the volatile security situation in Israel’s south.

Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, gestures after receiving the presidential sash during his inauguration ceremony at Bolivar Square in Bogota, on August 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

On August 3, Colombia’s outgoing foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín, sent a letter to Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, informing him that her boss had “decided to recognize Palestine as a free, independent and sovereign state.”

The outgoing government had informed the new one of its plans, but both kept them from the public until after Duque’s inauguration.

Jerusalem was surprised by the recognition, but the Israeli embassy immediately issued an angry statement saying it was “deeply disappointed,” not only by the fact that the government recognized Palestine, but also “by the way it was done.”

It was no way to treat a close ally, the embassy statement fumed, demanding that Colombia’s new government reverse the decision.

#ULTIMAHORA Comunicado de Prensa de la Embajada de Israel en Colombia sobre los últimos acontecimientos.

Posted by Israel en Colombia on Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The incoming vice president and foreign minister at the time said the Palestine recognition was done legally, but that the new government would review the decision. In deciding what to do next, it would take two aspects into consideration, Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said Wednesday: international law, and Colombia’s foreign relations.

Israel’s ambassador in Bogota, Marco Sermoneta, met incoming Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez, who listened to his complaints and promised to convey them to Duque. She also reiterated that Colombia values the “strategic importance” of its ties with Israel.

For years, Colombia had been Israel’s most reliable friend in South America.

When 138 countries voted in favor of granting “Palestine” observer state status at the UN General Assembly in 2012, Colombia abstained, as it did when 128 countries voted to condemn the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year.

As a thank you for the longstanding support, Netanyahu last September became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the country.

“Under your leadership in recent years it’s been a remarkable alliance [between Israel and Colombia] of faith and values, faith in the future,” Netanyahu told Santos in Bogota’s Narino presidential palace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shake hands during a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota, September 13, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

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