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September 11, 2017 6:03 am

Latin America Visit Is ‘Crowning Moment’ of Netanyahu Foreign Policy, But Iranian Threat Still Looms Large, Expert Says

avatar by Ben Cohen


Argentine President Mauricio Macri shakes hands with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2016 World Economic Forum. Photo: WEF

Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival in Latin America for the historic first visit by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister represents “a crowning moment for his foreign policy strategy,” a leading expert on the region said on Monday.

“Many critics have been saying over the years that Israel is isolated, and Netanyahu has proven them wrong,” Emanuele Ottolenghi – a senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) – told The Algemeiner.

“Israeli know-how, Israeli ingenuity, Israeli investment are bringing back Israel as a sought-after partner, especially in the emerging world of which Latin America is a part,” Ottolenghi said. “It’s working in Africa, it’s working in Asia – and particularly India, as we saw with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July – and it’s working in Latin America too.”

Netanyahu arrived in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires on Monday for the opening leg of a ten day-long visit that also takes in Colombia and Mexico. While in Buenos Aires, Netanyahu will meet with Argentine President Mauricio Macri and Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, who flies in to see Netanyahu on Tuesday.

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Ottolenghi observed that Netanyahu arrived on the inaugural flight of El Al ‘s new service between Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires. “The last time an El Al plane was in Argentina was in May 1960,” Ottolenghi said, when the architect of the Nazi Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, was smuggled to Israel by Mossad agents on board an El Al plane that was carrying an Israeli diplomatic delegation home.

Netanyahu’s itinerary in Buenos Aires includes paying tribute at the sites of two Hezbollah bombings in the Argentine capital that combined killed more than 100 people and wounded over 1,000: the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish center in 1994.

“In casualty terms, AMIA was the largest single atrocity by terrorists in the western world until the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001,” Ottolenghi noted. “Netanyahu is there at a time when again there is a glimmer of hope that the victims of the attack will receive justice.”

In a series of sensational developments in the AMIA case over this year, the January 2015 death of investigative prosecutor Alberto Nisman is now being officially treated as murder, while new evidence has emerged of the collusion between the former Argentine government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Tehran to exonerate the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies of responsibility for the attack.

The Iranian fingerprints on two of the worst terrorist attacks since the Second World War are a stark reminder of Tehran’s continuing sway in Latin America today. “Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay – whose leaders Netanyahu will be meeting this week – are also places where both Hezbollah and Iran are extremely active, and where terror financing continues under the noses of the same authorities that are welcoming Netanyahu as a partner,” Ottolenghi said.

While Iran and Hezbollah are “two sides of the same coin,” Ottolenghi said, “Hezbollah operates fairly independently in Latin America.” He pointed to the “increasing convergence” of narcotics trafficking and terrorism financing “whereby drug traffickers and terror financiers work with one another for mutual benefit.”

“This is something that Netanyahu will hopefully bring up,” said Ottolenghi, who has written and broadcast extensively on Tehran’s penetration of Latin America. “The leaders of the four countries with whom he’s meeting all have a narco-terrorism problem.”

Ottolenghi described Argentina as “ground zero” for Iran and Hezbollah in the region, while Paraguay is the “hub” of Hezbollah’s money laundering activities. In both Colombia and Mexico, there is a growing body of evidence tying Hezbollah money laundering with the revenues of the powerful drug cartels. While terrorism is not as pressing an issue as drug trafficking is for Latin American governments, Ottolenghi said, the continent “still remains vulnerable to Iranian-backed terrorism.”

“Netanyahu needs to bring this issue up in the framework of growing friendship and cooperation,” Ottolenghi said. “This is an important issue that cannot be overlooked.” While it is hard to pin a precise dollar amount on the value of this trade, Ottolenghi pointed to one 2016 case in Paraguay in which the funds being laundered exceeded $1 billion alone. “The enormous size of the problem is testimony to the difficulties that lie ahead in bringing these operations down,” he said. “So many people eat from this plate – not just the terror financiers and traffickers, but local authorities, border guards police, customs. If the authorities crack down, there will be significant pushback, so it’s important to remember that they need encouragement, they need help, and sometimes they need to be pressured.”  One area of particular concern is the Tri-Border Region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay overlap, and which has been established as a key operational center for Hezbollah.

Politically-speaking, Iran’s clout in Latin America has waned over the last two years, with the defeat of Kirchner in Argentina’s elections and the collapse of the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro, Iran’s main ally, into outright dictatorship. Yet Ottolenghi counseled against leaping to conclusions at this stage. “Friendly governments can still be voted out for unfriendly ones,” he said. “There is a left-wing government in Chile, there are still governments in Bolivia and Ecuador that the Iranians can count on. On balance, the Iranians haven’t had a great year, but they are still very well entrenched at the official level.”

Iranian influence also counts at the level of civil society, Ottolenghi said, particularly among Latin American Muslims, recently bolstered by the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees turned away from Europe and the United States. “The Iranians have an established network of Islamic centers and mosques across Latin America, with clerics who are trained in Iran,” he said. “The refugees naturally gravitate to the mosques and refugee centers as places that will welcome them and offer them assistance. So they are making slow but sustained progress towards getting more followers.”

Ottolenghi stressed that even with enhanced relations and greater security cooperation with Israel, Iran would remain a thorn in Latin America for the foreseeable period. Limited intelligence resources also mean that Israel is “not always fully aware of what the Iranians are doing,” he warned.

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