President Peres meets Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos Calderon.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
The screech of police sirens, the zoom of a nine-member police motor cycle escort, and a fanfare of trumpets on Monday morning ushered Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon onto the grounds of Israel's presidential complex in Jerusalem.
Already waiting for him were members of his huge political, business, media and Jewish community entourage as well as well as Israeli representatives of branches of the security establishment, the government and representatives of the various faiths observed in Israel.
President Shimon Peres stood at the edge of the red carpet to greet him as Santos emerged from the limousine, and the two men who know each other from previous meetings in Israel and elsewhere embraced before standing to attention for the national anthems of their two countries and then inspecting the military honor guard before their public exchange of pleasantries.
This is the third time that Santos, who arrived on Sunday, is visiting Israel. His two previous visits were in two of his three ministerial capacities.
Peres congratulated him on "achieving the impossible" – namely finding a way to unite Colombia after decades of strife and terrorism which had divided the country.
Peres referred specifically to the agreement which Santos had reached last August with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is the largest of the rebel guerilla groups.
"You are an important and influential visitor and a dear, true friend of Israel's who seeks peace, and your visit will give impetus to the renewing and deepening of relations in the spheres of security, science, technology and agriculture," Peres told his Colombian counterpart. "You are deserving of all praise and admiration."
Santos said that he was in Israel as the representative of 47 million Colombians who have the highest regard and affection for Israel.
Referring to his previous visits as minister, Santos said that he was very happy to return as president with his wife and children and enhance the already close relations in the spheres of commerce, innovation and politics.
Both Israel and Colombia have suffered from a lack of tolerance, he said, and both countries have proved to be greater than the challenges confronting them.
He was confident that both can overcome remaining obstacles “and we can learn from each other.” He said Israel represented a country that embarked on a path to economic stability through innovation.
Santos added that he brought warm greetings from the people of Colombia to the people of Israel "who have a right to happiness and a good life."
He said something similar in October last year after receiving the Shalom Prize from the Latin American Chapter of the World Jewish Congress in recognition of his commitment to seeking peace for his country and worldwide.
“Both the people here and the people in Israel have been seeking peace for decades,” he said at the time.
Santos may have some pointers on peacemaking to share with both Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Colombia, which is Israel's closest ally in Latin America, did not support the Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations, and abstained from voting.
However Colombia does support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and during his visit, Santos will work with both sides in an attempt to facilitate their return to the negotiating table.
Immediately after the formal welcome ceremony, Peres and Santos met behind closed doors for an in-depth discussion which was attended by government representatives from both sides. In introducing Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett to Santos, Peres told Santos: "He's a new minister and a very powerful man. You must be careful." Bennett's perpetual trademark grin did not betray whether he was flattered or insulted.
The meeting between the two presidents went half an hour beyond schedule, possibly in view of the fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry who is almost obsessive about reviving the peace process, is due to arrive in Israel again on Tuesday.
The two presidents emerged from their working meeting to witness the signing of a free trade zone agreement between Israel and Colombia, an air services agreement and a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in matters of innovation.
When some of the journalists present wanted to know what innovation entailed, both Israeli and Colombian officials laughed and said it was a euphemism for continued trade in arms and military strategies. Israel has for several years been a major supplier of defense equipment to Colombia and has also sent strategists to help train Colombian military forces.