BUENOS AIRES – All TV and radio stations here were obligated by law to carry President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s rambling speech from the new Atucha II nuclear power plant on Wednesday that included a message to the US and Israel to butt out of Argentina’s internal affairs.
Argentineans must not allow their country to be dragged into “conflicts that are not ours,” Fernandez declared before a crowd of thousands while sitting on a stage surrounded by members of her government. Both the crowd and the government officials regularly clapped and shook their heads in agreement.
“In reality, they prefer an Argentina without a nuclear plan, an Argentina that does not develop scientifically, an Argentina with low salaries and cheap labor,” she said.
Though she did specify who “they” were and how precisely “they” were working to keep her country down, she did mention two nearly identical letters her Foreign Minister Hector Timerman sent to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman the previous day.
In the seemingly self-contradictory letters, Timerman asked on the one hand for the US’s help in getting to the bottom of the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, AMIA – the Argentinean Israelite Mutual Association – while at the same demanding that Israel and the US cease to interfere in Argentina’s internal affairs.
The part about asking for American help by including the AMIA issue in negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran could be seen as an ironic swipe: It is legitimate for the US to enter into negotiations with the Islamic Republic regarding its nuclear arms program, but Argentina is criticized when it attempts to have relations with Iran.
“I urge all compatriots to read every paragraph of those letters,” Fernandez said.
In 2013, Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iranians that sought to create a “truth commission” to uncover those responsible for the 1994 bombing of AMIA, which killed 85 and wounded more than 300.
The US and Israel sharply criticized Argentina at the time.
Do Fernandez’s speech and Timerman’s letters mark a deterioration in Israeli-Argentinean ties? The rhetoric used by Fernandez, and to a lesser extent, Timerman, seems to signal some sort of tension. Imagine the head of a European country making comparable statements. A mini diplomatic crisis would probably follow.
Ambassadors might even be called back home for consultation.
But this isn’t Europe; this is the Argentina of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Natasha Niebieskikwiat, the diplomatic correspondent at Clarin, Argentina’s largest daily, told me that it would be wrong to read too much into Fernandez’s speech or Timerman’s letters.
Fernandez’s comments were primarily for local consumption and do not reflect any deep foreign policy decision, Niebieskikwiat said. The president was tapping into deep currents of resentment among Argentineans for what they see as US interference and hypocrisy.
Many in Argentinean society do not forget that the US, and to a lesser extent, Israel, supported dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. In 1976, Videla carried out a coup d’etat and began extra-judicial assassinations of political opponents known as “the dirty war.” The thousands of victims whose fate was never discovered are referred to as “desaparecidos,” or “disappeared.” It is said that while 1 in 100 Argentineans disappeared between 1976 and 1983, 1 in 10 Jews did.
Israel maintained an embassy in Buenos Aires during the years of the dirty war.
Argentineans are also concerned about allegations backed by documentation from WikiLeaks that via an obscure Argentinean intelligence agent named Antonio Stiuso, the US and Israel fed special prosecutor Alberto Nisman information that accused Iran of the bombing and discouraged Nisman from pursuing other possible tracks, such as Syria and the Argentinean intelligence service.
When I sent an email query to Horacio Verbisky, an intellectual and human rights activist who enjoys extensive influence in the Fernandez government, asking about the state of Israeli-Argentinean relations, he sent me an article that he wrote in 2004 for the pro-Fernandez daily Pagina 12 for the 10th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.
The article detailed Israel’s politically motivated intervention in the AMIA investigations, which, Verbitsky claims, led to the dropping of a line of investigation exploring Syrians involvement. Israel, claims Verbisky, had an interest in burying the Syria track because at the time the Rabin government was involved in negotiations with the Assad regime.
Verbisky also indicts Israel for its role during Argentina’s military junta, based on a slanted documentary film by Nurit Kedar. The film bashes Israel for supplying arms – including Uzis – to the military junta that ruled Argentina during the dirty war. The film fails to mention that Israel issued hundreds of passports to Argentinean Jews to help them flee the country.
Still, Verbitsky, like Niebieskikwiat, acknowledged that he did not expect relations with Israel to worsen.
The Fernandez speech and Timerman’s letters, therefore, should be seen as yet another attempt by Fernandez to use cheap populism to garner flagging support.
The Fernandez government reached the peak of its power in its landslide victory in 2011, the most decisive election victory since 1983.
But Fernandez has suffered a decline in popularity in recent years.
This was evident in the last parliamentary elections in 2013 when her party, Frente para la Victoria (FpV), lost in the four largest districts of the country and received just 28 percent of the vote nationwide.
The setback ended Kirchner’s hope of changing the constitution so that she could run for a third term.
Bad economic policies isolating Argentina and making it more difficult to export, particularly for the agricultural sector, are the main reason for the decline in political support for Fernandez.
But her government has also been hurt by its decision in 2013 to sign a memorandum of understanding with Iran to establish a “truth commission” to investigate the AMIA bombing. The memorandum was later ruled to be unconstitutional by Argentina’s Supreme Court – there was already an official body headed by Nisman investigating the bombing, the government could not appoint another. But the damage has been done.
Large segments of Argentinean society opposed the deal, in part because it undermined Nisman’s investigations that had found that Iran was behind the bombing.
The government was essentially inviting the terrorists who had committed the bombing to help in the investigation.
AMIA and DAIA, the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas, the two largest Jewish organizations in Argentina, publicly opposed the memorandum.
At the time, relations with Israel reached a new low.
After Jerusalem asked for explanations from the Argentinean government regarding the memorandum, Timerman summoned Israeli Ambassador Dorit Shavit for what was referred by Foreign Ministry sources as a “difficult, intense and unpleasant” meeting. In the meeting, Timerman “sharply criticized” Israel for interfering in Argentina’s affairs and implied that Israel’s interest in the bombing “encourages anti-Semitism.”
“Israel does not speak for the Jewish people and isn’t their agent. Jews who wanted and want to live in Israel moved there and became citizens, and those who live in Argentina are Argentinean citizens. The attack was against Argentina, and Israel’s desire to be involved in the matter only gives ammunition to anti-Semites who accuse Jews of dual loyalty,” Timerman, who is Jewish, said at the time.
But Verbisky downplays the clash between Israel and Argentina over the memorandum.
“Israel opposed the memorandum of understanding with Iran, but this does not affect the normal relations between two states than can have different standpoints,” Verbisky said in an email message.