Trump admits Mideast peace is "hardest deal"
JERUSALEM - US Vice President Mike Pence has urged Paraguay to rethink a decision to move its embassy in Israel from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, the White House said on Thursday, as US President Donald Trump admitted he is "starting to believe" that peace in the Middle East is "the hardest deal to make."
Paraguay's new President Mario Abdo Benitez infuriated the Israeli government on Wednesday by announcing that the embassy -- which only opened for business in Jerusalem in May -- would return to Tel Aviv, where most diplomatic missions are based.
But the announcement also caused consternation within the US government, which relocated its own embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May and has been hoping that other countries would follow its example.
In a readout of a call on Wednesday between the two men, the White House said Pence had "strongly encouraged" Abdo Benitez to stick to "Paraguay's previous commitment to move the embassy as a sign of the historic relationship the country has maintained with both Israel and the United States."
"President Abdo Benitez underscored Paraguay's lasting partnership with Israel and the leaders agreed to work towards achieving a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," it added.
There were no details in the statement about how Abdo Benitez had responded to Pence's specific request of rethinking the embassy move.
Pence's boss Donald Trump broke with decades of US policy by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, but Guatemala has so far been the only other country to follow suit apart from Paraguay.
The surprise announcement from Abdo Benitez -- who only came to power in mid-August -- prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order the closure of Israel's embassy in Paraguay's capital Asuncion.
While the Israeli government is largely based in Jerusalem and regards the city as the "undisputed and undivided capital" of the Jewish state, diplomatic missions are still almost entirely based in Tel Aviv.
Most foreign governments have indicated that they will only recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital as part of a comprehensive solution to the conflict with the Palestinians who also want the city they call Al-Quds to be the capital of their promised future state.
Paraguay cited this as one reason to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv.
Tit for tat
Turkey will open an embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay said on Thursday, a move which Foreign Minister Luis Castiglioni said was an expression of support for the Latin American country's stance on Palestine.
Turkey's ambassador to Paraguay has been operating out of Buenos Aires. Turkey has a consulate in Asuncion and another in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
Castiglioni said he expected to meet his Turkish counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month.
Paraguay and Guatemala relocated their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem after US President Donald Trump recognized the city as the country's capital in December. Hours after Paraguay announced on Wednesday it would move its embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, Israel responded by ordering the closure of its embassy in Paraguay.
Paraguay considers Israel's decision to close its embassy hasty and disproportionate, and hopes Israeli authorities will reconsider, Castiglioni said.
Abdo Benitez urged Israel to reconsider the closing of its embassy in Asuncion, calling it an "exaggerated" response to the South American country's decision to move its embassy.
The diplomatic dispute began in May when outgoing President Horacio Cartes authorized moving the Paraguayan Embassy in Israel, as the United States and Guatemala had already done. The move pleased Israel and Washington but infuriated the Palestinians and their supporters.
Abdo Benitez, who won Paraguay's election in April but had yet to take office when Cartes announced the move in one of his final acts as president, had said he would review the decision. On Wednesday, he said he would reverse it and move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, a decision applauded by Palestinian leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately ordered the closure of the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion.
"I regret Israel's decision. The reaction of closing the embassy was a little exaggerated and we urge authorities to reconsider it," Abdo Benitez said at a news conference in Itapua, 273 miles (440 kilometers) south of Asuncion.
He said Paraguay would "stick to international law and the United Nations' resolution that still considers it a territory in conflict" between Israel and the Palestinians.
Cartes' decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem had been criticized within Paraguay.
From 'ultimate' to 'hardest'
Meanwhile US president Donald Trump on Thursday admitted that bringing peace to the Middle East may be harder than he had thought, in comments to Jewish leaders marking the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Trump, who said in May 2017 that forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians would perhaps be "not as difficult as people have thought over the years," said Thursday he might have been wrong.
"All my life I've heard that's the hardest deal to make, and I'm starting to believe that maybe it is," he said in a conference call with Jewish faith leaders and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to mark the Jewish new year.
"But I will say that if it can be delivered, we will deliver it," he said, insisting that his team of regional envoys -- led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner -- "have made progress, believe it or not."
Trump stirred controversy in the region when he announced he was moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. More than 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire during protests in the Gaza Strip the day of the inauguration of the new embassy on May 14, a ceremony attended by Kushner and his wife Ivanka, the president's daughter.
The Trump administration has also cut funds to the United Nation's Palestinian refugee agency and pulled out of the world body's human rights council, accusing it of anti-Israel bias. The US government has also ended some $200 million in payments by USAID to the Palestinians.
Trump said during Thursday's conference call that the aid would be suspended as long as the Palestinians -- who boycotted his administration after the embassy announcement -- did not come to the table.
"The United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I'd say, you'll get money, but we're not paying you until we make a deal. If we don't make a deal, we're not paying. And that's going to have a little impact," he said.
Some analysts have warned however that the recent funding cuts could further inflame regional tensions.