US lobbying Paraguay to keep embassy in Jerusalem

Mike Pence tells Paraguayan president reversing reversal would be sign of country's close ties with Israel and US; Abdo Benitez highlights 'lasting relationship' with Israel

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)

The US is asking Paraguay to rethink its decision to move its embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the White House said Thursday, a day after Asuncion announced the move, putting ties with Israel in a tailspin but drawing praise from the Arab world.

In a call with Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benitez, US Vice President Mike Pence said having the embassy in Jerusalem would underscore close ties with both Israel and the US.

“The Vice President strongly encouraged President Abdo Benitez to follow through with Paraguay’s previous commitment to move the embassy as a sign of the historic relationship the country has maintained with both Israel and the United States,” a statement from the White House read.

According to the White House, Abdo Benitez said in the Wednesday phone call that Paraguay was maintaining its “lasting relationship” with Israel and both sides agreed “agreed to work towards achieving a compressive[sic] and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

There were no details in the statement about how Abdo Benitez had responded to Pence’s specific request of rethinking the embassy move.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, smiles along with Vice President Mike Pence, as US President Donald Trump speaks with his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta before a bilateral meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on August 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The White House readout, which noted that Pence called on Abdo Benitez to “follow through with Paraguay’s previous commitment to move the embassy” was worded in a way to indicate the vice president may not have been aware that Paraguay had already moved its embassy to Jerusalem in May.

At the time, the US thanked Paraguay “for joining us in recognizing Israel’s capital and encourage[d] additional moves.”

On Thursday, the Jerusalem embassy was already shuttered, with a sign on the door reading that “this office is closed to the public due to administrative reasons.”

Paraguay’s newly-elected President Mario Abdo Benitez waves greets the crowd during his arrival at his inauguration ceremony at “Lopez Palace” in Asuncion, Paraguay on Aug. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Paraguay had been just the second country to follow the US’s lead in moving its embassy to Jerusalem, along with Guatemala, in what many analysts saw was a bid for closer ties to Washington.

On Wednesday, Asuncion tried to downplay the affect of its decision to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the country’s own mission in Paraguay shut as a retaliatory measure.

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

Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Alberto 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.”

Former President Horacio Cartes opened the new embassy in Jerusalem on May 21, but the measure was widely criticized within Paraguay, and Castiglioni described it as “unilateral, visceral and without justification.”

Paraguay President Horacio Cartes (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurate Paraguay’s new embassy in Jerusalem, May 21, 2018 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Abdo Benitez had opposed the switch even before taking office on August 15.

“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.

Demonstrators shout slogans against Israel’s military strikes on the Gaza Strip during a protest in Asuncion, Paraguay, Friday, January 9, 2009. (AP/Rene Gonzalez)

Palestinians and the Arab world cheered the reversal, with Ramallah saying it would open its own embassy in Asuncion.

Saeed Abu Ali, assistant to the Arab League’s secretary-general for Palestinian affairs. said Thursday that Paraguay’s about-face should serve as a model for other countries in the face of Israeli plans and US pressure. He also said it will also positively reflect on Arab-Paraguayan relations.

Abu Ali hailed Paraguay’s move as being on the “right track” and in accordance with international legitimacy resolutions.

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