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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Israel says more states eyeing Jerusalem embassy move

Honduras could be next to move embassy from Tel Aviv

A picture taken on February 24, 2018, shows the building of the former Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, considered one of the options to host the new US embassy headquarters after its relocation from Tel Aviv in May this year to coincide with Israel's 70th Independence Day according to US officials. Ahmad Gharabli /AFP Photo
A picture taken on February 24, 2018, shows the building of the former Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, considered one of the options to host the new US embassy headquarters after its relocation from Tel Aviv in May this year to coincide with Israel's 70th Independence Day according to US officials. Ahmad Gharabli /AFP Photo

Israeli officials say they are on the cusp of persuading more countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem, with Honduras tipped as the next state that may abandon Tel Aviv as a diplomatic base.

In the December UN General Assembly vote condemning US President Donald Trump's announcement that the US recognises Jerusalem as Israel's capital - and plans to move its embassy there -Guatemala and Honduras were among seven countries to side with Washington and Israel.

With Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales's announcement on Sunday that he will follow the US by moving his country's embassy to Jerusalem in May, others from Latin America could follow.

"We are optimistic that in the next weeks or months there will be other countries as well," said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

Such moves would be claimed as wins for Israel in its ongoing bid to consolidate the occupation of East Jerusalem and to thwart Palestinian aspirations to establish the capital of an independent state there. The May timetable has been chosen by the US and Guatemala because that is when Israel will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, an occasion Palestinians recall as the nakba, or catastrophe, of their displacement.

It does not appear that Guatemala's step, by itself, will open the floodgates for Israel but Honduras has political reasons for seeking to please the Trump administration. Several tiny Pacific island nations such as Micronesia and the Marshall islands may also join. The Philippines is treading carefully, anxious to be in Washington's good graces, but wary of adversely affecting any fall out that could endanger the much-needed remittances or status of millions of Filipinos who work in the Middle East.

Some 128 states voted to condemn the US diplomatic move to Jerusalem, with 35 abstentions and 21 absentees.

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Guatemala to move embassy to Jerusalem in May, president says

Canada's opposition would recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital

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The vote showed that, even with threats by the US of reprisals for opposing its stance, the vast majority of the international community still adheres to UN Security Council resolution 478 from August 1980 that condemned an Israeli law declaring Jerusalem to be Israel's "complete and united" capital and called on member states to withdraw embassies from the city.

President Morales announced his decision during a speech in Washington to 18,000 pro-Israel activists pointing up his desire to deploy the goodwill of the Israeli lobby in his dealings with the Trump administration.

Guatemala has a history of strong ties with Israel dating back to its support and lobbying of other countries in 1947 for the UN partition resolution that formed the basis for Israel's establishment. It was the first Latin American country to recognise Israel and until 1980 was one of only 16 countries to put its embassy in Jerusalem. From the 1980s onward, it maintained a close security relationship with Israel.

But international affairs specialist Barak Barfi of the Washington-based New America think tank believes Morales's decision has more to do with bolstering US ties and winning favour with his evangelical Christian political base, for whom the Jerusalem issue resonates, than it does with Israel.

"The Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration and its protectionist trade policies worry Guatemala," Barfi said. "Lining up behind Trump on a crucial foreign policy decision will pay dividends." The return of Guatemalan migrants in the context of a harsh US immigration policy means the end of their remittance payments which make up an estimated 10 percent of GDP. Morales hopes to avert that.

Honduras is also at the mercy of Trump on immigration. Since a 1998 hurricane, the US allowed tens of thousands of Hondurans to remain and work in the US. But in November, a senior administration official said it was possible that Temporary Protected Status for 57,000 Hondurans would be revoked. Following Guatemala's lead could be a way for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez to persuade the Trump administration not to do this, Barfi notes.

The US also recognised the controversial recent reelection of Hernandez despite widespread allegations of fraud, with UN ambassador Nikki Haley visiting Honduras in late February to bestow legitimacy upon him and thank him for supporting Israel. "The US is the only country that supported Hernandez and moving the embassy could be a way of repaying this political debt," said Leonard Senkman, a Latin America specialist at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute for International Peace.

Other countries that could see a switch include Canada. Its Conservative Party has vowed that if elected in 2019, it will recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The party has in the past made similar statements, seeking to outbid the ruling Liberal party for the votes of Israel supporters. But while the previous pledges were unfulfilled, Trump's move makes it likely that Canada will follow suit if the conservatives are elected. "Canada's conservatives have always been and will always be a strong voice for Israel and the Canadian Jewish community," party leader Andrew Scheer was quoted by CTV news as saying on February 26. The Liberal government has previously said it has no plans to relocate the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv.

Countries within the EU are unlikely to relocate their embassies at this point, an EU diplomat told the National. "There are some doubts about the Czech Republic and Romania but I don't think these doubts will materialise," the diplomat, who asked for anonymity, said. "The EU consensus is still strong enough even though it is eroding as we saw in the abstentions of six member states in the UN vote. It is eroding but not to the extent that countries will move their embassies."

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