BUENOS AIRES – In the run-up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Latin America, Foreign Ministry spokesmen stressed Israel’s historic relationship with that part of the world and took pains to highlight that fully 13 of the 33 countries that supported the 1947 UN Partition Plan came from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ironically, however, none of the three Latin American countries that Netanyahu – the first sitting prime minister to travel to the region – will be visiting on his groundbreaking trip are among them: Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. These three countries, along with Chile, El Salvador and Honduras, all abstained on the measure that helped pave the way to the establishment of Israel. Cuba was the only Latin American country to vote against the plan.
Today, however, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are among Israel’s strongest allies in Latin America – Paraguay and Panama also rank high on the list, and it is no coincidence that Netanyahu will be meeting Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes in Buenos Aries on Tuesday, and with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week.
Notwithstanding who voted how in 1947, Israel captured the imagination of much of Latin America in its early years, said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.
Many Latin American countries identified with Israel’s narrative, she said, “a young country beating all the odds. It really had some deep echoes there.”
Jonathan Grossman, a lecturer on Israel-Latin American relations, at the University of Texas, said that in the pre-state days, there were very strong lobbies in many of the Latin American countries for partition, many of them composed of non-Jewish intellectuals.
“There were many reasons for this sympathy,” he said. Mostly it was sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, but he said it also had to do with the fact that many sympathized with Zionism because they saw it as a force that could “overthrow Western imperialism and build its own national home, gaining autonomy and independence.”
Siegel Vann said that the role of the local Jewish communities also was an important factor. These communities, though small, were influential and deeply Zionistic. As proof of that Zionist commitment, she pointed to the 70,000 Argentinian immigrants who now live in Israel, out of a Jewish community that currently stands at some 200,000.
“Latin America identified with Israel in the early days when it was facing tremendous challenges, and was aspiring with the kibbutzim to building a socialist utopia,” she said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Argentina
According to Siegel Vann, this romance, however, ended in 1967. A similar falling out happened with the countries of Africa, but that did not take place until six years later, following the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
According to Grossman the honeymoon ended even earlier for some Latin American countries, especially Argentina, where the Mossad’s abduction of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann in 1960 severely strained ties.
“This was a blow to Israel’s relations with Latin America in many regards,” he said. There were serious charges in Latin America of the dual loyalty of Jews, and many had a grievance toward Israel for violating Argentinian sovereignty, he explained.
Siegel Vann said that one of the reasons that the Six Day War was a watershed, was because the Soviet Union – which was playing an increasingly important role in the region – came out in full support of the Arab side in the war.
These were the days of the Cold War, she said, noting that for many Latin American countries at the time, “not being aligned with the US was a badge of honor.”
Indeed, this is a theme that has repeated itself frequently in Latin America: The more countries wanted to distance themselves from the US, the more they distanced themselves from Israel.
After 1967, said Grossman, Israel politically started to be identified with America and imperialism, and basically maintained better relations with the non-populist, right-wing governments in the region.
The situation with some countries, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba, deteriorated to such a point that in the last decade they sided openly with Iran.
“Everyone was coming to Latin America, including Iran, Russia and China – as they saw that it was a source not only of commodities, but also political support and legitimization around the world,” Siegel Vann said.
For Israel, she noted, the tipping point was 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, when five Latin American countries recalled their ambassadors: El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
“Israel took heed at that point and realized that it could not ignore Latin America anymore and decided to start investing in it, as it was doing with Africa and Asia,” she explained.
Netanyahu’s current visit, she said, is an indication that those efforts have borne fruit.