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The Belarusan government was "astonished" to hear of Israel's decision to close its embassy in Minsk, the Belarusan Embassy in Tel Aviv said yesterday. The closure "may cause serious problems," an embassy spokesman warned.

These "problems" could impair the functioning of the Jewish Agency and other Israeli organizations that assist with immigration to Israel from Belarus, the spokesman explained. A resulting reduction in passenger flow may lead to the termination of the thrice-weekly Tel Aviv-Minsk aviation link, he added.

News of the imminent closure, which was announced by the Foreign Ministry last week, was a shock, in light of declared Israeli intentions to develop its links with Eastern European countries, particularly Belarus, the embassy official told Anglo File.

"Probably somebody will get some economic and even political dividends from this decision," the official continued, "but the interests of the man on the street will be painfully affected."

The embassy in Belarus was one of eight Israeli missions named for closure by the Foreign Ministry last week. Budget cuts dictated the shutting of Israeli embassies in Zimbabwe, Panama, New Zealand and Belarus, and consulates in Montreal, Sydney, Marseilles and Rio de Janeiro by the end of next month, ministry officials said.

The other closures have resulted in a more muted reaction among Israel's diplomatic corps. With Panamanian ambassador Mario Arosemena Quintero on holiday in the north of Israel this week, staff at the embassy in Tel Aviv were unwilling to comment. Nor were officials at the Brazilian Embassy willing to react in the absence of their ambassador, Jose Nogueira Filho, who is abroad. Neither New Zealand or Zimbabwe have missions in Israel.

Australian Ambassador Ross Burns was available; he told Anglo File yesterday that his government was "fairly understanding" of the need to make "painful" budgetary decisions, particularly as it has made similar cutbacks over the last decade. The political relationship between Israel and Australia would not be affected by the closure of the consulate in Sydney, he said.

Acknowledging that the Jewish community in Sydney would be affected by the decision, Burns said he was sure the Israeli government would take "adequate steps to cover its consular and commercial interests" from Canberra.

He added that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had informed Australian officials of its decision "very correctly," by sending a high-ranking official to explain the background to the decision to the Australian government and the local Jewish community in Sydney.

This contrasted with the reaction at the Belarusan Embassy, where the press secretary said his government and ambassador were still awaiting "official written notification" of the closure plans.

A spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv said this week that the closure of Israeli consulate in Montreal would not affect multidimensional or bilateral relations between the two countries. The announcement did not come as a surprise, she added.

Officials at the French Embassy echoed this sentiment, but said efforts had been made by the French government to reverse the decision to shut the consulate in Marseilles. "But at the end of the day, the decision is Israel's," a spokesman said.

One diplomatic source suggested the timing for the Foreign Ministry's announcement - during the summer holiday season - may have been deliberate and was aimed at minimizing protests against the closures. A Foreign Ministry spokesman flatly denied this, saying the timing of the announcement was "irrelevant" and made after only a "painful and lengthy deliberation process" within the ministry to "try and minimize the harm that will be done" by the closures. But, like all other ministries, he added, the Foreign Ministry had to reign in its spending.

Prior to last week's announcement, only the Israeli Embassy in Paraguay had been shut as a result of budget cuts this year. The embassy in Asuncion closed in January amid loud-voiced protests from Washington, the government in Paraguay and its Jewish community. Earlier this year, the Paraguayan ambassador to Israel, Luis Fernando Meyer, told Anglo File the Paraguayan people felt "let down and betrayed" by the decision to close the embassy, due to "moral reasons," citing the fact that Paraguay had given the decisive vote for the creation of the State of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947.

Last week, the Paraguayan foreign minister carried out his threat to close the Paraguayan Embassy in Mevasseret Zion if funds were not allocated for next year to reopen the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion. Ambassador Meyer is set to return to Paraguay later this month (see story below) and the embassy's number two, Bernado Balbuena Prieto, has already returned.