Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The tiny Central American nation of Costa Rica, which for decades was one of only two countries with an embassy in Jerusalem, has announced that it will move its embassy to Tel Aviv.
Israel, which considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital -- to the fury and dismay of Muslims -- expressed its disappointment over the decision.
Coming as it does at this particular time, it could be interpreted "as giving in to terrorism and awarding its perpetrators," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Newly elected Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said it was time to correct a historical mistake. He said that having the Costa Rican embassy in Jerusalem limited his country's relations with the Arab world.
"It's time to rectify an historic error that hurts us internationally and deprives us of almost any form of friendship with the Arab world, and more broadly with Islamic civilization, to which a sixth of humanity belongs," said Arias.
Arias said there is no doubt that Israel has "the right to exist and live free of threat, particularly the criminal threat of terrorism."
Jairo Lopez, a spokesman for the Costa Rican Embassy in Jerusalem, said that since his country has no army, it must rely on the international community for protection. That being the case, Arias believes that his country must therefore abide by international resolutions, Lopez said.
"The Israeli government and people are saddened by the decision," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "Costa Rica and Israel have had excellent bi-lateral relations. We strongly regret the decision by the government of Costa Rica.
"Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and it's only right that foreign governments maintain their embassies in Jerusalem," Regev said by telephone. Israel wants to see governments moving their embassies to Jerusalem, not away from it, he added.
Rebecca Weinberger, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem Embassy Initiative, which tries to get other countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem, expressed her surprise at the move.
"It might be a reaction to Israel standing up to terrorism," Weinberger said. "It doesn't seem wise considering the situation [in the world]."
The American Jewish Committee said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision and was voicing its concern to Costa Rica.
AJC Executive Director David Harris called the decision "particularly painful" since it was taken by Costa Rica, which he called, "a shining light of democracy in Latin America" against another democracy, Israel.
(Arias was a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy when he was president of Costa Rica between 1986 and 1990, although he is considered more moderate than Cuba's Fidel Castro or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.)
"The timing of this decision...just after a ceasefire on the Lebanon front following Hizballah's murderous assault on Israel, is all the more troubling, and could, however unintentionally, be interpreted as tacit support for those who seek to harm the Jewish state," Harris said in a statement.
Lopez said that Arias had actually postponed his announcement until after a ceasefire took effect to avoid being seen as taking sides in the conflict between Israel and Hizballah.
El Salvador soon will be the only country to still have an embassy in Jerusalem.
According to radio reports, El Salvador said its embassy would remain in Jerusalem. But the embassy here said the ambassador is currently out of the country and the staff was not allowed to answer any questions.
The American Embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv but the U.S. maintains two consulates in Jerusalem - one on the eastern side and one in the West.
In 1995, the U.S. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, obligating the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May 1999 but both former President Bill Clinton and President Bush have signed successive six-month security waivers to avoid the controversial move.
Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatened the U.S. several years ago when it looked like the move to Jerusalem might take place. He said he would turn the embassy into "rubble and return your diplomats in coffins," if the move actually took place.
A Palestinian Islamic cleric also made similar threats on Palestinian Authority television last year.
Most embassies left Jerusalem in 1980, when Israel passed a law designating Jerusalem its united, eternal capital.
Palestinians want the eastern part of the city, including the historic Old City, to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
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