Paraguay urges Israel to reverse ‘exaggerated’ Asuncion embassy closure

President says he regrets Netanyahu’s response to decision to move mission back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; Cartes slams ‘betrayal’ by successor; Turkey to open Asuncion embassy

People demonstrate outside the presidential residence in Asuncion on September 06, 2018 against the government's decision of moving its embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv.
People demonstrate outside the presidential residence in Asuncion on September 06, 2018 against the government's decision of moving its embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv. (AFP/NORBERTO DUARTE)

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez on Thursday urged Israel to reconsider the closing of its embassy in Asuncion, calling it an “exaggerated” response to the South American country’s decision to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv.

The diplomatic dispute began in May when outgoing President Horacio Cartes authorized moving the Paraguayan Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the United States and Guatemala had already done. The move pleased Israel and Washington but infuriated the Palestinians and their supporters.

Abdo Benitez, who won Paraguay’s election in April but had yet to take office when Cartes announced the move in one of his final acts as president, had said he would review the decision.

On Wednesday, he said he would reverse it and move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, a decision applauded by Palestinian leaders and the Arab League.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (R) Congratulates new Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez on August 16, 2018. (Jerusalem Municipality)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately ordered the closure of the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion.

“I regret Israel’s decision. The reaction of closing the embassy was a little exaggerated and we urge authorities to reconsider it,” Abdo Benitez said at a news conference in Itapua, 273 miles (440 kilometers) south of Asuncion.

He said Paraguay would “stick to international law and the United Nations’ resolution that still considers it a territory in conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Abdo Benitez spoke, several Israel supporters protested outside his Asuncion residence against his decision to reverse the Jerusalem move.

View of Asuncion’s World Trade Center, which housed the embassy of Israel, on September 6, 2018. (AFP / NORBERTO DUARTE)

US Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Abdo Benitez on Wednesday and “strongly encouraged” the Paraguayan leader to follow through with its previous commitment to move the embassy to Jerusalem, according to a White House statement.

Meanwhile, Turkey announced plans to open an embassy in Asuncion, where it had previously only had a consulate.

Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Alberto Castiglioni said the move by Ankara was to show support for the stance on Israel.

Cartes’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem had been criticized within Paraguay, but celebrated by Israel.

On Wednesday, Cartes wrote on Twitter that Adbo Benitez had “betrayed A FRIEND.”

“The friendship between Israel and Paraguay was betrayed. Anyone who turns their backs on Israel will pay dearly,” he wrote.

Announcing the move Wednesday, Castiglioni said at a news conference that he hoped “the friends of Israel will not be bothered” by his nation’s reversal and expressed hope for “excellent ties of friendship and cooperation” with both “the states of Israel and Palestine.”

A picture shows the empty entrance and a sign on the door of Paraguay’s closed embassy in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)

Castiglioni described Cartes’s move as “unilateral, visceral and without justification.”

“One of the most complex components of the conflict (between Israel and the Palestinians) is the status of Jerusalem,” Castiglioni said, and Paraguay believes it should be negotiated between the parties involved — a position still held by most nations.

The Palestinians want Jerusalem’s eastern sector as the capital of their hoped-for state, while Israel sees the entire city as its eternal, undivided capital. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War along with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, territories the Palestinians want for their future state.

Most countries have maintained their embassies in Tel Aviv so as to not prejudge the outcome of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel’s embassy in Asuncion was closed from 2003 to 2016 over budgetary constraints. According to a Thursday report in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israeli diplomats had viewed the opening of the embassy in Paraguay as unnecessary.

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