Netanyahu’s Historic Latin America Visit Is Part of Global Pivot
JNS.org – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Mexico and Argentina in mid-September is expected to improve trade ties for Israel, and to open a broader dialogue with Latin America’s Jewish community.
It marks the first time that a sitting Israeli head of state will visit the region.
“Netanyahu’s visit is an important instance in the strengthening of bilateral relations between Israel and Latin American countries,” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told JNS.org.
The visit is also significant for the region’s Jewish communities, he said.
“In Latin America, there are many Jewish communities, all very different from each other, big and small, but they all share a great affection for the state of Israel,” Epelman explained. “[Netanyahu’s visit] is without a doubt an incredible opportunity for dialogue.”
Argentina, home to some 230,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish community in Latin America. There are approximately 50,000 Jews in Mexico, which has Latin America’s third-largest Jewish community, after Brazil.
Netanyahu’s visit is part of a broader effort to improve ties with non-traditional allies such as African and Asian countries, as well as Muslim-majority nations.
As part of this initiative, Netanyahu visited western Africa in June to expand ties on that continent, following his historic trip to eastern Africa last year — the first such visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister in 29 years.
In February, Netanyahu declared that Israel is “pivoting toward Asia” before visiting Singapore and signing a bilateral treaty with Japan that same month. In March, he visited China with a large Israeli business delegation to mark 25 years of Israeli-Chinese diplomatic relations, and in July, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in the first-ever visit to the Jewish state by a sitting Indian head of state.
The objectives of Israel’s pivot toward Africa and Asia are the same as those in Latin America: improving the outcomes for the Jewish state on UN votes, expanding economic cooperation, curbing Iranian influence on those continents and bolstering diplomatic relations.
The prime minister’s plan to visit Latin America first emerged late last year, while Netanyahu hosted Guatemala’s President, Jimmy Morales, in Jerusalem.
“Latin America has always been friendly to Israel, but I think we’re at a position where these relationships can be far, far, far advanced,” Netanyahu told Morales. “I look forward to visiting Latin America.”
Latin American countries are mutually interested in collaborating with Israel, particularly in the fields of technology, agriculture, security and medicine, and Israel already enjoys strong relations with several Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Colombia.
Israel is Mexico’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, with bilateral trade between the two nations amounting to $700 million in 2016.
Despite its ties to Latin America, the region is also fraught with challenges for the Jewish state.
In recent years, several South American nations have formally recognized Palestinian statehood, starting with Brazil’s 2010 recognition of a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines.
In the summer of 2014, five countries — Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru — recalled their ambassadors to Israel in protest of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
In February 2016, the Palestinian Authority opened its first-ever embassy and diplomatic mission in the Western Hemisphere — in Brazil. At the same time, Brazil refused to accept Israel’s nominee as its ambassador to the South American nation — former Israeli settlement movement leader Dani Dayan.
Israel has also faced diplomatic challenges in Venezuela, where its former Ambassador, Shlomo Cohen, was expelled in 2009, amid warming relations between Venezuela, Iran and Hamas.
Israel also suffered a diplomatic spat with Mexico earlier this year, when Netanyahu seemed to approve of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
Prior to the Israeli government’s recent initiative to expand relations in Latin America, pro-Israel activists and lawmakers in the region began promoting a positive image of the Jewish state to combat the growing influence of the BDS movement, the Palestinians and Iran on the continent.
During the Israel Allies Foundation’s Latin America Summit in March 2016, parliamentarians from 13 Latin American and Caribbean nations signed a resolution in support of Israel and against BDS. Echoing these sentiments, Mexican politician Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes — an evangelical Christian — asserted that there should be no boycotts of products made in the disputed territories during a visit to Samaria this summer. He also urged Mexico to deepen trade with Judea and Samaria.
According to some, Israel also enjoys the support of millions of Evangelical Christians in Latin America.
Dr. Luis Fernandez Solares, the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem’s (ICEJ) national director for Guatemala, said at the recent 2017 Herzliya Conference, that Latin American evangelical institutions should increase their cooperation with Israel and local Jewish communities to combat “leftist” leaders in the region who have close ties to Arab nations, as well as Iran and the Palestinians.
Following his South American visit, Netanyahu will address the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19. His appearance will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, in which 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries voted for the creation of a Jewish state in the former British Mandate of Palestine.