In Rare Move, Israel Denies Colombian Foreign Minister Entry to Ramallah

MFA said Colombia's top diplomat can only visit the Palestinian Authority if she also visits Jerusalem, out of fear the trip would set a precedent for foreign dignitaries.

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Israel denied this week a request by Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin to visit Ramallah.

According to a statement by the Foreign Ministry in Bogota, Israel would only permit Holguin to visit Ramallah if she agreed to visit Jerusalem on the same visit to the region. A senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed the matter, stating that the directive was ordered by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

It is highly unusual for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to give such a directive, and it appears that the move was made in an effort to harden its policy with regards to visits by foreign ministers to the Palestinian Authority, which are normally carried out without any difficulty.

Differences of opinion over Holguin's visit to Ramallah led to a diplomatic incident that caused tensions between Israel and Colombia, which is considered a central Israeli ally in Latin America. Colombia is one of the last two countries in Latin America that has not recognized Palestine as a state. The second country is Panama, another of Israel's allies. Israel and Colombia have ties in economic, diplomatic and security areas.

The saga began on November 3, when Colombia's ambassador to Israel, Fernando Alzate Donoso, asked the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to arrange entry for Holguin from Jordan to Ramallah via Israel. The Colombian ambassador stipulated that Holguin was interested in meeting with her Palestinian counterpart, Riyad al-Maliki, and possibly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, too.

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Holguin arrived in the region for a visit in Jordan and Gulf states, but wished to add Ramallah to her itinerary. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said it is likely she was put under Palestinian and Jordanian pressure to visit Ramallah.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem received Donoso's request bitterly and said it would consider the request and provide an answer as soon as possible. A number of debates were held in the ministry on the matter, which eventually made it to Lieberman's desk.

The senior Foreign Ministry official noted that, as far as Lieberman was concerned, if Israel agrees to allow foreign ministers of other countries to visit Ramallah without visiting Jerusalem too, it will set a precedent that many other countries in the world would take advantage of in the future. Lieberman even opined that amid the backdrop of tensions in Jerusalem in recent weeks, Israel needs to take a principled and resolute stand on the matter.

Lieberman instructed Foreign Ministry staff to convey to the Colombians that in light of the years-long friendship between the countries, it would be fitting for Holguin's visit to Ramallah to be made in conjunction with a visit to Israel. What this diplomatic speech means is clear: Holguin being allowed to visit Ramallah is conditioned on her visiting Jerusalem, too. 

The Colombians understood the message and announced shortly afterward that, due to the minister's full itinerary, she would not be able to also add a visit to Jerusalem, and, as such, Bogota was withdrawing the application to enter the Palestinian territory via Israel.

However, Israel's unwillingness to facilitate her visit to Ramallah did not prevent Holguin from meeting with her Palestinian counterpart. In the end, they met in Amman on Monday.

The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Emmanuel Nahshon, said in response: "As is customary and especially in light of the friendly relations (between Israel and Colombia), we invited the minister to attend a short meeting in Jerusalem, but in light of scheduling restraints the minister decided not to visit the Palestinian Authority and Israel during her current trip. We hope that we will be able to arrange a visit for Minister Holguin to Israel soon."

Nahshon added that "Colombia is one of Israel's central allies in Latin America. The friendly relations between the states allows for fruitful and versatile cooperation. Israel maintains continuous diplomatic dialogue with the Colombian government, which culminated in the latest visit by (Colombian) President (Juan Manuel) Santos to Israel last year."