Guatemala embassy move seen as domestic win, pleasing US

Opening Jerusalem mission expected to bolster President Jimmy Morales, whose government is beset by economic problems, gang violence and corruption allegations


GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala’s move of its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Wednesday was the culmination of longstanding friendly ties between the two nations.

It’s also seen by many as an attempt to curry favor with the administration of US President Donald Trump, which two days earlier inaugurated its own embassy in disputed Jerusalem. Perhaps most important, it is considered an easy domestic victory for Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, whose government is beset by economic problems, gang violence and corruption allegations that continue to dog him and those close to him.

“I think it’s driven much more by domestic factors in Guatemala, the right-wing evangelical support for both Morales and their support for the state of Israel,” said Michael Allison, a political scientist specializing in Central America at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

“Morales and many in the Guatemalan political and economic elite were in favor of moving their embassy,” Allison said. “They would not have done it without the US doing it first, but it is not as if they were doing something that went against what they wanted to do.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L) Guatemala President Jimmy Morales (C) and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel (2R) at the official opening of the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem on May 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Israel has always claimed Jerusalem as its capital, but other countries put their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the holy city’s contested status — Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. This week’s embassy moves came amid protests in Gaza that saw nearly 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during clashes along the border.

Hamas, which has described the clashes as non-violent, acknowledged Wednesday that 50 of those killed were members of the group. Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based terror organization, said three of those killed were its members.

Guatemala became the second country to recognize the Israeli state, in 1948, and it was the first to put its embassy in Jerusalem, in 1956. It shifted its legation to Tel Aviv 24 years later after the Israeli parliament declared Jerusalem the eternal and indivisible capital in contravention of a UN resolution.

The close relationship continued during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war. When the US banned arms sales over military human rights abuses during the 1978-1982 government of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia, Israel provided intelligence systems and Israeli-made arms such as Galil rifles.

Even before the embassy move, Guatemala’s congress began pushing for closer relations and in April declared that Guatemala will observe each May 14 as a “national day of friendship with Israel.”

“It is the right thing to do,” Morales has said of moving the embassy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales attend a reception at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on May 16, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Just as for Trump, moving Guatemala’s embassy plays well with an important part of the electoral base of Morales, an evangelical Christian whom like-minded voters helped usher into office in 2015. At least one evangelical pastor accompanied Morales to Israel for Wednesday’s inauguration.

“They [the Evangelical Alliance] exert some level of pressure over him and see the switch as positive,” said Enrique Godoy, a Guatemalan political analyst.

That kind of domestic win comes as Morales is under increasing pressure due to corruption investigations in Guatemala that have picked up steam in recent years, even leading to the imprisonment of former President Otto Perez Molina.

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