Paraguay’s election has implications for its Israeli embassy — and its relationship with Jerusalem

Jacob Kessler, JTA

(JTA) — The question of where countries keep their embassies in Israel has become a debate that perpetually attracts controversy around the globe. In Paraguay, ahead of a national election on Sunday, the question is far from decided.

Since former President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, a few other countries have followed suit, agreeing with much of Israel’s political establishment that the latter city, despite international and Palestinian opposition, is Israel’s sole capital. Israeli conservatives, such as those currently in power, have looked to court more countries to move their embassies and have counted each example as a historic victory.

The government of Paraguay, a country of around seven million people sandwiched in between Brazil and Argentina, has been back and forth on the Israel embassy issue. Shortly after Trump’s move, Paraguay’s president at the time, Horacio Cartes, moved his embassy as well. That year Guatemala did the same, and a few years later, Honduras and Kosovo followed suit.

But only one month after being elected, in September 2018, Cartes’ successor Mario Abdo announced he would be moving the country’s embassy back to Tel Aviv. Despite being a member of the same conservative party as Cartes, Abdo felt that for “broad, lasting and just peace” among Israelis and Palestinians, Paraguay’s embassy should be in Tel Aviv. Critics of Trump’s decision say declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s sole capital hurts the chances of a two-state solution, as the Palestinians would look to claim part of Jerusalem as their future state capital.

Abdo’s move quickly resulted in pushback. In Paraguay, pro-Israel protesters demonstrated outside the president’s residence in Asuncion. Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence “strongly encouraged” Abdo to reconsider his decision, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went beyond rhetoric: he closed Israel’s embassy in Paraguay. It hasn’t reopened since.

Election day on Sunday could bring the debate back to the fore.

One of the two leading presidential candidates is 44-year-old economist Santiago Peña of the Colorado Party, Paraguay’s right-wing political party which has ruled the country for nearly 80 consecutive years (save for the period between 2008 and 2013). The party has been plagued by corruption allegations, and Peña has been tied to these scandals: he was finance minister under Cartes, who was recently sanctioned by the United States for undermining Paraguay’s democracy by “making cash payments to officials in exchange for their loyalty and support.”

Thanks in part to those corruption allegations, a non-Colorado candidate now has a serious shot of winning the presidency this year. Efraín Alegre is a more centrist candidate from Concertación, a coalition of political parties who came together to oppose Colorado’s domination. Earlier this month, polling from Encuesta Atlas had Alegre leading by a few percentage points, though other polling has found Peña in the lead.

In March, in a meeting with the Paraguayan-Israeli chamber of commerce, Peña announced that if he wins the election, one of his first actions as president will be to order the move of the Paraguayan embassy to Jerusalem. He said that Paraguay “recognizes that city as the capital of the State of Israel.”

Efraín Alegre’s last statement on the issue of Paraguay’s embassy came in 2018, shortly after Paraguay initially moved its embassy to Jerusalem. Alegre argued that the move would fuel the conflict.

In a statement provided exclusively to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Alegre confirmed that he would keep Paraguay’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

“Fundamentally, Paraguay is a country that respects international law. In its resolutions 181 of 1947, 478 of 1980, and 2334 of 2016, the United Nations Security Council has made clear the status of Jerusalem, not accepting its annexation or its declaration as the capital of Israel. This position is shared by all nations with only a few exceptions,” he wrote. “There is great potential for exchange and cooperation between Paraguay and Israel, and Paraguay will continue to defend Israel’s right to a peaceful existence. In fact, there is a long relationship of friendship between our nations. Paraguay’s vote at the United Nations in 1947 was the one that gave the majority for the recognition of Israel as an independent state. These close ties were not, nor are they now, subject to the status of Jerusalem.”

The Comunidad Judía del Paraguay, an organization which encompasses all the Jewish institutions in the country, remains apolitical but fervently Zionist, similar to Jewish organizations in other Latin American countries. The community of around 1,000 Jews is mostly affiliated with the Conservative movement and is concentrated in Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion. The city contains a local chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, a Jewish day school and a Hebrew Union that organizes religious and athletic activities.

“We as a community have maintained very good relations with all governments and we will continue to work with whoever is elected,” said Mariano Mirelman, executive director of the Comunidad Judía del Paraguay.

But it is possible that if Peña is elected and moves the embassy, the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will re-enter public discourse in Paraguay. And this has the potential to fuel antisemitic attitudes, according to research by the Latin American Jewish Congress (or LAJC), an arm of the World Jewish Congress.

In Paraguay, serious antisemitism incidents are rare, but according to the LAJC, antisemitism in Paraguay does appear online, especially related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a yet-to-be- released 2022 study by the LAJC’s Observatorio Web program of more than 42,000 tweets in Paraguay related to Jews, Israel or the Holocaust, 6.45% of them were antisemitic and included making comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, which constitutes antisemitism according to the LAJC.

If Paraguay’s embassy does move back to Jerusalem, that would mean that more than half of the embassies in Jerusalem are from Latin America, joining Honduras and Guatemala.

Paraguay and Israel have historically had warm ties. Over 10,000 European Jews escaped to Paraguay during the 1930s — but after the war, many Nazis also hid in the South American country and its larger neighbors on the continent.

According to Bishara Bahbah, author of “Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection,” it’s not an accident that the majority of these countries are from Central and South America. Although ideologically they may not feel strongly about the embassy issue, they know they can curry favor with the United States by strongly supporting Israel.

“Latin American countries view Israel’s special relationship with the United States as a critical element of their relationship with Israel,” Bahbah tells JTA. “Because if they are in need of U.S. support in one or two or three areas, they tend to lean on Israel to convince the U.S. government to provide them whatever they are seeking.”

Due to its size and lack of regional power, Paraguay’s potential decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem will likely not have a domino effect, Bahbah said. Further, although the Biden administration has left the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, it has shown no signs of pressuring Latin American countries to move their embassies the way the Trump administration did.

Regardless of what happens with Paraguay, Netanyahu has not given up in his fight to have Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital worldwide. As he said while visiting Italy last month: “I believe the time has come for Rome to recognize Jerusalem as the ancestral capital of the Jewish people for three thousand years, as the United States did with a gesture of great friendship.”