BOGOTA – The first person to greet shoppers at the trendy El Retiro mall in this
capital city is not a sales clerk or concierge. It is a uniformed security guard
who stops all cars entering the underground garage, opens their trunks for
inspection and then directs a large dog to sniff the backseats for scents of
Sometimes Colombian guards, when checking a foreigner,
apologize for the inconvenience. When that foreigner is Israeli ambassador to
Colombia Yoed Magen, he tells the guards not to worry because he is only too
familiar with the process.
“We understand. We share that concern with the
Colombians,” Magen says while sitting in an office whose panoramic windows
overlook Bogota, until recent years the scene of regular bombings. “We feel at
Colombia’s fight against violent guerrilla and paramilitary groups
has made it Israel’s closest ally in South America because of the countries’
shared experience of living with terrorism and because Israel has provided
Colombia with concrete military assistance to combat it. But with the government
now trying to ease neighborhood tensions by reaching out to some of Israel’s
biggest regional foes – notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – Jerusalem hopes the
fundamentals underlying those ties will keep the bond strong.
relationships in the world are fully independent and autonomous,” says Foreign
Minister Maria Angela Holguin.
“We have a close relationship with Israel,
as we do with many other nations in the world.”
That relationship became
much tighter under the government of the previous president, Alvaro Uribe, who
took office in 2002 and promised to sweep away the conciliatory policies of his
predecessors in favor of a tough line on guerrilla groups, chief among them the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Uribe was highly successful in
cutting down FARC and bringing the paramilitary groups under control,
dramatically reducing the levels of violence and restoring a sense of normalcy
to major Colombian cities. But he also got into confrontations with other Latin
American countries that he felt weren’t sufficiently supportive of his efforts,
particularly Venezuela and Ecuador where FARC leaders were known to hide out.
Tensions with Chavez ran particularly high.
When Uribe’s Defense Minister
Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, he pledged to continue the same approach
to Colombia’s internal conflict but took a decidedly softer tone in external
Accordingly, he traveled to Caracas to meet with Chavez and to
Quito to meet with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, among other
Though some Uribe backers have been less than pleased, Santos
has received wide support for this policy from across the political
“We are trying to find some sort of balance or equilibrium in
order to avoid conflict with our neighbors, and also we are trying to create an
environment that allows us to obtain better cooperation with them on security
matters, though we know the cooperation from them will never be the ideal
cooperation,” explains international relations professor Andres Molano, who
teaches at the San Carlos Diplomatic Academy for foreign ministry
Underscoring his point is Chavez’s recent appointment of Gen.
Henry Rangel Silva – whom the US has designated for materially assisting FARC’s
narcotics trafficking – as defense minister.
Molano stresses, though,
that the relationship with Venezuela goes far beyond security issues and
highlights trade, infrastructure and energy as other fields where cooperation
matters greatly to Colombia.
Additionally, the tensions between Colombia
and its immediate neighbors have worsened its relationship with the whole
region, he says.
“It’s put Colombia into some sort of isolation that we
need to overcome to occupy the place that we should occupy among the order of
Latin American nations.”
In September, Colombia confronted a major test
of just how far its effort at balance would go. Would it join with other South
American countries and support the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state
at the UN? The answer was no.
“Colombia has been very clear in its
We have a close bilateral relationship with Israel and we have
historically supported the right for self-determination of the Palestinian
people,” states Holguin.
“We endorse the two-state
Rather than unilateral steps, she continues, “We are convinced
that direct negotiations are the most viable tool for these nations to reach
peace and a coexistence agreement, dealing with the main core issues that have
kept them apart for so long.”
Colombia’s decision was particularly
significant because it currently holds a seat on the 15-member Security Council,
which was poised to consider the Palestinians’ appeal.
Jaramillo Jassir, a professor at Colombia’s Superior School of Warfare for
military officers, the government’s choice was a major mistake.
this decision of not recognizing the Palestinian state, we are deepening the
isolation from the rest of the hemisphere,” he argues.
Laserna, a Colombian senator from the Conservative Party, disagrees.
don’t think you can manage international relations as a beauty contest,” he
Lobbying the Colombian government to reject unilateral
recognition of a Palestinian state, Magen, the Israeli ambassador, found that
most officials he dealt with were as opposed to it as Laserna.
have to press them that much.
The Colombian government was
It helps that Colombia itself has been wary about
interference from international groups – the UN included – in its own domestic
conflict and argues for solutions forged between the parties rather than
But Magen contends that Colombia’s position goes
deeper than the politics of the peace process and the UN.
conflict is external and the Colombian conflict is internal, the consequences
are alike. You have terror here. You have terror there. You have car bombs. You
have big armies,” he says. “You have people that suffer.”
countries also both endure similar side effects, such as a vulnerable tourism
industry and a troubled international image.
During Holguin’s trip to
Israel this October, Magen relates, Colombian officials were chagrined to hear
that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just watched Colombiana
, a film
steeped in drug violence.
They, like Israelis, are often distressed at
the way they find their country depicted in popular culture.
easier for me as an ambassador to represent our cause in Colombia than in other
[South American] countries,” Magen says. “The rest is easier, much easier when
there’s a common understanding.”
In addition to shared experience, there
are also the practical nuts and bolts that hold the relationship together – the
hardware of Israel’s military cooperation.
“Israel has given a lot of
support to our armed forces, not only in terms of equipment but also in terms of
training,” notes Laserna.
A November 2008 cable from the US embassy in
Bogota made public by WikiLeaks estimated that as of 2007, roughly 38 percent of
Colombia’s foreign defense purchases were from Israel.
“Key areas of
cooperation include strategic military advice, special forces training and arms
sales in support of Colombia’s battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia,” the cable reads.
Beyond Israel’s contributions, Colombia has
also received vital aid from the United States. Some critics of Colombia’s
stance on Palestinian statehood, including Jassir, charge that staying in
America’s good graces has played a central role in the government’s position on
Holguin, however, rejects any link between Colombia’s
relationship with Israel and its relationship with the US.
relationship with Israel and our bilateral relationship with the United States
are independent from one another and deal with different issues,” she
Molano argues that it would be wrong to think that Colombia hasn’t
recognized a Palestinian state only because of America.
related to our national interest to keep the cooperation with Israel,” he says,
adding, “Our foreign policy is very autonomous and it won’t change because of
this process of normalization with Venezuela and other
Indeed, Colombia has a history of taking independent
positions on foreign policy.
Marcos Peckel, executive director of the
Colombia Jewish Community Confederation, the umbrella organization for Colombian
Jewry, offers a string of examples of Colombian autonomy starting with being the
sole South American country to participate in the Korean War and then again in
the Iraq War’s “coalition of the willing.” In addition, Colombia alone joined
Chile in siding against Argentina in the Falklands War and is more enthusiastic
than its neighbors about America’s war on drugs since drug money supports FARC
and its associates.
Peckel, a self-described practitioner of “political
Judaism,” isn’t worried that Colombia might change its policy toward Israel, in
part because he doesn’t see a lot of domestic opposition to its
Although the hundreds of thousands of Colombians of Arab
ancestry, most of them Christian, dwarf the country’s at most 5,000 Jews, Peckel
says the two communities are fairly apolitical and get along.
points to more pressure from Arab activists on the Palestinian recognition issue
than Peckel does, but he also points to other constituencies that strongly
support Israel, among them the rapidly growing number of Evangelical Christians.
At Christmas time, Magen was invited to appear at events marking the holiday to
talk about Israel in front of tens of thousands of Evangelicals.
cites two polls from October, one in a major newspaper and one a call-in program
on TV, in which Colombians backed the Israeli position over the Palestinians’ by
a margin of 77 to 18 and 89 to 11.
Jassir – who in September joined 49
other academics in writing a letter calling on the government to back the
Palestinian bid at the UN – found that there wasn’t much establishment support
for his position, with few political leaders taking up the issue.
doesn’t expect things to change anytime soon, and while that disappoints him
when it comes to the recognition of a Palestinian state, he, too, thinks it’s
good that Colombia has a solid relationship with Israel.
in a big conflict as we do, so I think there are a lot of lessons, a lot of
knowledge that we can learn from Israel,” he explains. “I think the relationship
“It’s not only a relationship of shared values, which we
have, but about shared situations and shared experiences,” says Laserna, who
sits on the other side of the political fence from Jassir. “A lot of people have
said that Colombia is the Israel of South America and I think that is to a great