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Interview'The relationship is between nations, not leaders'

Outgoing Honduras president: Christians, parliament will protect strong Israel ties

Shortly before he leaves office, Juan Orlando Hernández, a close ally of Israel, says his left-wing successor will face resistance if she tries to move Jerusalem embassy

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (courtesy)
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (courtesy)

“Mr. President, you are a true friend of Israel,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Juan Orlando Hernández shortly before the inauguration ceremony for Honduras’s new embassy in Jerusalem in June. “The Jewish people have a long memory, and you will be recorded in the pages of history as having done a brave and justified deed for the State of Israel.”

Moving the embassy wasn’t the only policy the Honduran leader enacted in support of Israel. Throughout his eight years as president, Hernández has made the Central American nation — which recognized the State of Palestine less than three years before he took office — into one of Israel’s most reliable allies.

Besides becoming the fourth country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, Honduras under Hernández’s leadership has regularly supported Israel at the UN and other international bodies.

But Hernández is leaving office on January 27, to be replaced by Xiomara Castro,  a self-proclaimed democratic socialist whose husband and campaign manager allied himself with far-left Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro when he was president himself. The president-elect has declared her intention to overturn many of Hernández’s policies.

As he entered the final weeks of his presidency, Hernández spoke with The Times of Israel by Zoom early in December to discuss how he had reoriented Honduras’s relationship with Israel, and where the bilateral relationship could be heading under the new government in Tegucigalpa.

Israel’s fingerprint

Hernández first came to Israel in 1991 on a leadership course run by MASHAV, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.

He called the trip “life-changing.”

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on a MASHAV leadership program in Israel as a young man in 1991 (courtesy)

“It was quite impressive to see the adversity, how you worked very hard to make the desert flourish,” he said. “I am from the rural area of Honduras. But if you look at the agriculture of Israel, it is amazing for me. It was a life-changing situation for me to see how for centuries, the persecution of the Jewish people, the first Jews who went and settled the land even though there are swamps and desert. You have been changing that. I believe that few countries in the entire world have done what you have done.”

Mattanya Cohen, former ambassador to Honduras, told The Times of Israel last year that he has no doubt that Hernández ’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was influenced by his participation in the MASHAV course. Cohen said Hernández had personally told him how much the tools he had acquired from MASHAV helped him build his public career.

That career began in 1998 when he entered Honduras’s parliament. In 2010, during his fourth term, Hernández was elected president of the National Congress. Three years later, he defeated Castro to become Honduras’s president at age 45, as his opponent rejected the results and took to the streets to protest.

As president — while facing allegations of drug trafficking and corruption — Hernández focused on tackling violence. When he came into office, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world. After pushing reforms in the police, military, and intelligence agencies, that figure dropped by more than 50 percent during his presidency.

“We couldn’t have done that without Israel’s help,” he said, pointing at Israeli technology and close ties between the countries’ security agencies. “In the whole strategy that we drafted at the beginning of my program, there is the fingerprint of the Israeli people.”

And it was Israeli agricultural technology that played a central role in his relationship with then-US president Donald Trump.

“At the beginning, he was very demanding, and even hostile,” Hernández recounted. “With the region, not just Honduras — Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — because of immigration.”

When Hernández and Trump began working together on curbing migration from Central America across the US’s southern border, ties improved markedly. One of the most successful initiatives to address root causes of migration – which started during the Obama administration – was improving agricultural production, especially in the country’s “dry corridor,” where droughts and food shortages drove Hondurans to head north. Using Israeli technology, productivity on the region’s small farms increased, enabling some to even export their produce to other countries.

“In the end, I think it was a very respectful relationship,” he said.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 2021 (courtesy)

The security and technological cooperation bore fruit in the diplomatic arena. Under Hernández, Honduras regularly voted against or abstained on anti-Israel resolutions at the UN and other international bodies.

Honduras was one of only nine nations — including the US, Israel, and Guatemala — to vote against the 2017 UN General Assembly resolution that rejected America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was also one of the 37 countries that boycotted the Durban IV conference in September.

Hernández’s government has stood with Israel in other international forums as well. In May, the UN World Health Organization adopted a resolution focusing on Israel alone as a health rights violator. Honduras was one of 14 countries to vote against the measure.

Honduras paid a price for its support for Israel. In 2018, its candidate for the presidency of the UN General Assembly was rejected when anti-Israel countries successfully mobilized behind Ecuador’s nominee.

The embassy process

The most visible manifestation of that support was the embassy move in June.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Jerusalem on October 29, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Hernández said that it was by design that he didn’t move the embassy during his first term. “I wanted it to be a process,” he said. “First of all, I don’t want it to just be the move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It has to be reciprocal. You have to reopen the embassy in Honduras. Second, it has to continue beyond my term and [then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] term.”

Israel had closed its embassy in Tegucigalpa in 1995 for budgetary reasons, relying on its envoy in Guatemala to serve as a nonresident ambassador to Honduras as well.

Foreign Ministry sources were also quoted as saying Honduras wanted improved ties with the Trump administration.

In December 2018, Channel 12 reported that a delegation of senior officials from Honduras visited Israel, reportedly to explore the possibility of moving the Honduran embassy to Jerusalem, after secret talks with the prime minister.

The embassy move was seen as especially problematic because Honduras has the second-largest Palestinian population in Latin America.

But Cohen told Army Radio that the challenge didn’t deter Israeli diplomats: “I didn’t give up. We started with quiet contacts behind the scenes, with ministers, with parliament members, and the community.”

The first move was to open diplomatic offices in both capitals. Hernández traveled to Israel in August 2019 to open Honduras’s office in Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that was oddly announced initially in Israel by Netanyahu’s wife Sara in a Facebook live video feed.

In January 2020, Honduras officially declared Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist organization. That August, Israel opened a temporary representative office in the Honduran capital.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021 (courtesy)

The final decision, which included Israel reopening its embassy in Tegucigalpa, was announced in September 2020 after a phone call between Hernández and Netanyahu, but because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Hernández could not travel to open the embassy until June 2021.

As it turned out, he was the first foreign leader that Bennett met in person. “He was very kind, very excited,” Hernández recalled. “For him I think it was like a gift that he was prime minister and was so excited to be part of that historic moment.”

The two discussed cooperation in milk production, agriculture, and security, according to Hernández.

“It was good for me to hear from him that even though we started the process with Netanyahu, we were going to continue.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández inaugurate the new Honduran embassy in Jerusalem, June 24, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Though Netanyahu didn’t attend the ceremony in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood, he did make sure to visit Hernández in his hotel.

Hernández noticed a change in his old friend. “He said he was sleeping better and more. He was relaxed, he was happy we ended the process we had started.”

Bennett and Hernández also met on the sidelines of the COP26 conference in Glasgow in October.

Israel finally reopened its embassy in Tegucigalpa in November at an event attended by Hernández, Strategic Planning Minister Eli Avidar, and Israel’s envoy to Honduras Eldad Golan.

Ties under Castro

The pressing question now is how Castro will manage the relationship with Israel, and whether she will move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

There are certainly worrying figures surrounding Castro. Her running mate, First Vice President-elect Salvador Nasralla, has issued antisemitic statements, saying in 2020 that “JOH’s boss is the government of Israel.” The year before, he said in a debate that the Jews control the word’s money. His wife apologized to Latin America’s umbrella Jewish organization after calling Hitler “a great leader” in 2017.

Castro’s husband, Mel Zelaya, a past president who tried to move the country in a Marxist direction, claimed that Israeli mercenaries were torturing him with high-frequency radiation after his ouster in 2009. Zelaya’s close ally, journalist David Romero Ellner, said it would have been “fair and valid to let Hitler finish his historic vision” of eliminating the world’s Jews.

By contrast, Hernández’s wife, Ania Garcia Carias, has two flags of two countries in her office — Honduras and Israel.

Honduras’ president-elect Xiomara Castro in 2007 (Ricardo Stuckert/PR – CC BY 3.0 br)

Though he hasn’t spoken to her about it, Hernández seemed confident that Castro wouldn’t take the drastic step of relocating the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

“I believe the Christian community, and the rules of this relationship, is going to be an important argument in order to keep the embassy in Jerusalem,” he said.

He also sees the legislature as an important counterweight protecting the relationship. Though moving the embassy is a presidential decision, the National Congress can influence it. “You know presidents need some things, and Congress needs some things,” he said. “I believe there is a lot of people in the new Congress that will advocate to keep this very good relationship with Israel.”

Spokespeople for Castro’s Libre party did not respond to questions about her intentions regarding Israel and the embassy.

Yoni Peled, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Latin America, told The Times of Israel that he is not overly concerned that Castro will move the embassy.

“Right now, we do not see a reason for a change in policy in this specific regard, the embassy,” he said. “It may be that the relations will be less warm, or less intimate, but we don’t see any signs right now of any intention to change the level of ties around the embassy.”

“The relationship is not just between leaders, but between the nations,” Peled continued. “The fact that a president that represents the left is coming into office now — that doesn’t change the support for Israel from the population.”

Castro has also signaled her desire to maintain close ties with Israel and the United States. One sign of her pragmatism was a meeting between Castro’s representatives and Golan, the Israeli ambassador. She has also met with business leaders in an attempt to allay fears about her continuing her husband’s policies.

If Castro is indeed willing to continue building on the relationship, it could lead to tangible benefits for both Hondurans and for Israel’s standing in the region.

“We are in a triangle cooperation with the United States, through USAID and  MASHAV, in all sorts of programs to mitigate the phenomenon of immigration and the problems that lead to it — social inequality, poverty, and corruption,” Peled explained. “We are trying to help Honduras contend with the root causes.”

At the inauguration of Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, Hernández spoke to then-Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales and Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez about creating a regional pro-Israel coalition.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 2021 (courtesy)

“The Christian people in Latin America, the Jewish people in Latin America, we have to create a coalition in order to advocate for Israel,” he said. “And I believe in the Christian community you have very important support. I’m not just talking about Central America. I’m talking about the whole Latin America region.”

There are already components of such an alliance in place. Honduras abuts other Central American allies of the US and Israel, El Salvador and Guatemala. Latin American countries are steadily opening governmental offices in Israel’s capital. Beyond Guatemala’s and Honduras’s embassies, Brazil opened its innovation office in Jerusalem in 2019, and Colombia and Ecuador have shared a Jerusalem office since November.

Given the significant economic and social challenges Castro will face when she assumes the presidency in late January, she has good reason to choose the pragmatic path of continuing cooperation with Israel and the US. Her silence on the issue to this point indicates that she may well be waiting to make up her mind. Israeli officials, Honduran friends of Israel, and Hernández himself will be watching closely in the coming weeks to try to gain a sense of where Israel-Honduras ties are headed.

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