12 months ago, President Donald Trump broke one of the international community’s greatest taboos. However, despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s best efforts to leverage the historic moment, Guatemala is the only other state to have followed suit. Here’s why
By Noa Landau
May 14, 2019
On May 14, 2018, President Donald Trump broke a decades-old diplomatic taboo and relocated the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The move forced the rest of the international community to examine its policy on Israel’s capital for the first time since the 1980s, when a UN resolution deemed that no diplomatic missions should be stationed in the contested city.
In the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it his mission to turn the diplomatic tide in Jerusalem’s favor, courting numerous countries — especially those with large evangelical communities — and using his close ties with the U.S. president to try to leverage them to relocate their own embassies as well.
An examination by Haaretz, based on interviews with diplomats and a review of Netanyahu’s own statements and news reports, reveals what has come in the wake of Trump’s initial decision: Which countries have committed in principle but failed to make good on their word? What has been the favored diplomatic solution? And what are the factors that seemingly influence this process?
The promise of peace
The question of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has been a contentious global issue since Israel’s first government recognized the western part of the city as the country’s capital in the late 1940s — a decision further expanded to include East Jerusalem in 1967.
In August 1980, following legislation that enshrined Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, the UN Security Council voted in favor of Resolution 478, which bans diplomatic missions from the city. Since then, no country has opened an embassy in the city, opting instead for consulates and attachés. Until Trump.
Relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was one of his early campaign promises. That hardly made him unique: Many presidential hopefuls have made such a vow, only to renege after taking office. But Trump made sure to stress that this was one promise he planned on keeping.
One reason was that Jerusalem was key in his attempt to win over the coveted evangelical vote — already a growing part of his political base thanks to his enlistment of Mike Pence, the devout, born-again Christian, as his vice president.
The evangelical spirit behind the embassy relocation was present during the inauguration ceremony that took place that May day in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem: The small and exclusive group present included a few dozen evangelicals who had come as part of a special delegation from the United States, headed by Pastor John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. After his speech, Hagee asked his audience for a “Hallelujah.”
Other speakers — Jewish and Christian alike — peppered their speeches with biblical quotes relating to God and Jerusalem. Even Netanyahu quoted scripture: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great fury” (Zechariah 8:2). Some evangelicals take that line to be a reference to Jesus’ return to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu also hailed the embassy move as a “great day for Israel, the U.S. and peace,” while, in a video speech, Trump reiterated his ongoing support for “reaching a peace deal.” But in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance in Jerusalem, Gaza saw tens of thousands protesting Trump’s decision along the border fence with Israel. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded as part of the “March of Return” demonstration that continues until this day.
Turning the tide
Even before Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalemat the end of 2017, Netanyahu (then Israel’s foreign minister as well) had long been at work on an aggressive flagship campaign to create a diplomatic wave of embassy relocations.
“There is no doubt that once the U.S. Embassy moves to Jerusalem, and even before that, that other embassies will also relocate [there] too,” he told Israeli diplomats. Israel, he claimed, was in touch with other countries “that will recognize [us] similarly.”
In an event for foreign diplomats to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, Netanyahu even went so far as to offer special aid to the first countries that relocated their embassies to Jerusalem. “What you can do to advance peace,” he told them, “is moving your embassies here. … The first 10 embassies to move here will get preferential treatment — we will help you.”
Netanyahu even claimed that Israel was “in talks with half a dozen countries seriously considering moving their embassies to Jerusalem.”
If anything, Trump’s announcement had the opposite response to what Netanyahu had hoped for. The leaders of Europe’s biggest countries — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron — as well as the United Nations and European Union, all rejected the unilateral step. Jerusalem’s status, they reaffirmed, would be negotiated as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
From Morocco to Iran, the Arab and Muslim world almost unilaterally condemned the move. As violence flared in Gaza, Israel even suffered a number of diplomatic blows, with Turkey and South Africa both recalling diplomats, Israeli envoys being reprimanded by Europeans and the Security Council calling for a probe into the deaths on the Gaza Strip border.
Guatemala to the rescue
The only country to stand by the United States and Israel from the outset was Guatemala, led by Jimmy Morales. Only two days after the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, the Central American country followed suit: It relocated its embassy to a new home in the Malkha neighborhood’s Technology Park.
Guatemala is home to a growing evangelical community — currently some 40 percent of the population, with Morales himself a proud member. Guatemala and Israel have moved closer following their embassy move, with Sara Netanyahu making a rare diplomatic visit to the country as a “special envoy” in order to attend a charity event.
Morales, however, was hoping the move would help him win favor in Washington. At first, it seemed to have worked as the White House stayed quiet on calls for him to face an international inquiry. Recently, though, the magic seems to have faded: Trump is now accusing the Central American country, along with Honduras and El Salvador, of not playing its part in quelling illegal immigration, despite receiving U.S. aid.
Threats of cutting U.S. aid to Guatemala even after it moved its embassy to Jerusalem may have played a factor in Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández ultimately deciding not to follow in the Americans’ footsteps.
The country is 37 percent evangelical, with the community growing and supportive of its conservative leader. Hernández was willing to move the embassy, but he had a price and in return wanted Netanyahu to help broker talks with the Americans. Already bogged down over immigration, Honduras’ increasing financial ties with China only further strained ties with a Trump administration concerned by Beijing’s growing strength.
During Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration as president of Brazil in January, a meeting was held between Netanyahu, Hernández and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There were even talks of Israel opening up its market to Honduran coffee — the country’s biggest export. But despite it all, the meeting failed to relieve tensions between the United States and Honduras, and during the last AIPAC conference the country announced that it too would not be relocating its embassy. Instead, it would only open a trade office.
The business solution
Opening trade or cultural missions has become the preferred compromise for those countries that have found themselves unable to follow up on their initial promises — as was the case with Brazil and Bolsonaro.
With Latin America’s largest growing evangelical community — some 50 million people, or 22 percent of the population — the group forms a key part of the conservative political force that carried Bolsonaro to power. Like Trump, moving the embassy to Jerusalem was one of his campaign promises. “Israel is a sovereign country and if you decide on your capital we will go according to that,” he told the free Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.
But by the time Netanyahu arrived for a state visit in December, Brazil’s commitment was suddenly less urgent, less public. Privately, his team briefed the Israeli media that the move was still on, but pressure was mounting from within Brazil: Exporters doing business with the Arab world feared a backlash. Finally, when Bolsonaro came to Israel in March, he announced that it would only be opening a trade office. Trump’s mixed messages and threats to Guatemala and Honduras did little to incentivize the Brazilian leader.
Diplomatic sources who spoke with Haaretz said the Brazilian trade office will be set up by a private businessman and he will not be considered a full diplomatic representative.
Another interesting case is that of Paraguay, which opened and then closed its embassy in Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of the United States and Guatemala, Paraguay’s then-President Horacio Cartes flew to Israel in May 2018 to inaugurate his country’s own embassy in Jerusalem’s Technology Park: “This is a big day for Israel, this is a big day for Paraguay and a big day for our friendship,” said Netanyahu, praising the two country’s “good cooperation that will only get better.”
Paraguay has a large, devout Catholic community, with evangelicals forming only a small group of some 10 percent of the population. However, they are active in politics. Israel’s close ties to Cartes were attributed to the fact that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, once served as an adviser for the deeply conservative South American leader — who, like Bolsonaro, has made rabid anti-LGBT comments.
Cartes lost the presidential election last year and his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez, was quick to announce he would reconsider the new embassy’s location. Last September, the country announced its embassy would be returning to Tel Aviv, prompting Israel to shutter its own embassy in Paraguay in response. “Paraguay wants to help bolster diplomatic efforts to attain a just peace in the Mideast,” the South American country’s foreign minister explained. Reports said the decision came following pressure from Palestinian Foreign Minister Dr. Riad Malki.
The Australian flip-flop
It seems the presence of three factors makes a country more open to consider such a move:
1. An evangelical community (but also some Catholic groups considered Zionist Christians);
2. A conservative, right-wing leader;
3. The desire to get closer to Trump and the United States or, conversely, to generate opposition to the European Union. Haaretz