How will Colombia's historic detente with rebels affect Jerusalem-Bogota ties?

Colombia was the only South American country that did not follow Brazil’s lead in 2010 and 2011 and recognize the Palestinian Authority as a Palestinian state.

September 1, 2016 00:47
netanyahu colombian president Santos

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon in Jerusalem, June 2013. (photo credit: GPO)


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Jerusalem this week welcomed the historic peace agreement in Colombia that ended 52 years of fighting between the government and the Marxist-Leninist FARC terrorist organization, unconcerned that the granting of some political power to FARC will upend strong Israeli-Colombian ties.

“Israel welcomes the historic agreement that will put an end to the bloodshed and conflict inside Colombia,” Modi Ephraim, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director general for Central and South America, told The Jerusalem Post this week.

“We are sure that the friendly relations with Israel will continue, led by President [Juan Manuel] Santos, and we will be there to cooperate as much as needed,” he said.

Over the past two decades the countries have enjoyed a strong security relationship.

At 12:01 Monday morning, the peace agreement, negotiated over four years and concluded last week in Cuba, went into effect, ending a civil war that cost some 220,000 lives, drove more than 5 million people from their homes, was accompanied by more than 20,000 kidnappings, and left large swaths of the country under FARC control, where it raises coca plant that in the early 2000s was responsible for some 90% of the world's cocaine production.

Under the terms of the agreement, which still needs to ratified in a referendum on October 2, FARC is to turn over its arms within six months and will be allocated five seats in the 102 seat senate, and another 5 seats in the 166 seat Congress. Another 16 seats in the country's rural areas will be created, and FARC is expected to gain political power there as well since none of the existing political parties can vie for them. This arrangement is to last for a decade, at which time FARC, or whatever its political movement is named, will compete in the elections like all other parties.

Yisrael Beitenu MK Oded Forer, the chairman of the Israel-Colombia Parliamentary Friendship Group, discounted the notion that if Colombia's security needs decline significantly as a result of the accord, its ties with Israel will weaken. He also said he was not concerned that FARC's newfound political representation would lead to a change in Colombia's policy toward Israel since the representation the group will gain is relatively minor.

“FARC's entrance into the parliament is minor compared with the advantages of the agreement, also as far as we are concerned,” he said. “In The end our cooperation with Colombia revolves around economic issues; cooperation in agricultural , innovation, water. I think this new period they are entering, perhaps a more quiet and better one with economic opportunities, can lead to a lot of economic cooperation with us.”

He said that there will now be need for a great deal of development in under-developed areas once held by FARC, and that Israel could contribute a great deal in that direction.

Ephraim said that over the last two decades Colombia has been Israel's central ally in Latin America.

Colombia was the only South American country that did not follow Brazil’s lead in 2010 and 2011 and recognize the Palestinian Authority as a Palestinian state. The country was also a temporary member of the Security Council in 2011 and was one of seven countries that made clear it would not support Palestinian statehood, thereby quashing Palestinian hopes that year of forcing a US veto on PA statehood in the Security Council.

Ephraim said the two states have have built up close cooperation across a variety of fields: including water technology, agriculture and innovation. Israel and Colombia signed a free trade agreement in 2013 that is now in the final stages before implementation, and Colombia was a driving force behind Israel's acceptance as an observer in the four-country Pacific Alliance, the strongest trade bloc in Latin America.

Still, very robust security cooperation has been a main component of the relationship over the years.

For instance, A 2008 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks said that the two countries maintain “positive relations… particularly in the defense sector through private Israeli defense contractors.”

According to the cable, “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 (FARC). Economic relations between the two countries outside of defense cooperation remain relatively limited.”

According to the cable, Colombia has “engaged former Israeli military officials to help provide training and advice in the fight against the FARC and other terrorist groups.” Israeli contractors, the cable continued, support the Colombian government through “arms sales, military training, and the provision of strategic military planning and consulting services.”

Israel has been is a significant source of weaponry for Colombia, and according to the cable uncovered by Wikileaks, some 38 percent of Colombia’s foreign defense purchases went to Israel in 2007.

Ephraim said that Israel expressed a willingness to take part in a variety of international post-conflict projects to help implement the peace accord. These projects include clearing mines, the development of agricultural areas once under FARC control, and the raising of other crops in those areas instead of the cocoa plant.

“From our perspective this is a historic and important accord,” he said, “and we are prepared to help implement the next stage, which is no less important. “ According to Ephraim, plans are in the works for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Colombia in 2017, for what would be the first ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to South or Central America. Nothing has been finalized, he said, but that is “the intention.”

Labor sanctions inside the Foreign Ministry forced the postponement in 2014 of a planned trip that was to have taken Netanyahu to Mexico, Panama and Colombia. Argentina -- where ties have improved significantly since the 2015 election of Mauricio Macri -- would likely be added to any South American trip in 2017.

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