(photo credit: AP)
Israel's decision to expel Venezuela's diplomats in response to Caracas's expulsion of Israel's ambassador three weeks ago was made against the advice of many key Foreign Ministry officials, government sources said on Wednesday.
According to the officials, it took Jerusalem that long to decide on its response because of disagreements in the ministry between those, foremost among them Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who thought Israel's national honor necessitated expelling the Venezuelan diplomats, and ministry veterans concerned about breaking all ties with Caracas, and the impact it might have on the 13,000-strong Jewish community there.
In the end, one official said - after pointing out that the country is in the height of an election campaign - the "national honor" argument held sway.
While Hugo Chavez's Venezuela expelled Israel's diplomats on January 6 and then declared a total break of ties on January 14, the country kept its three-person embassy here open until it was ordered by the Foreign Ministry to close.
The embassy employees were given 72 hours to leave the country. Venezuela has not had an ambassador in Israel for years, and has been served by a chargÃ© d'affaires.
Israel's interests in Caracas will now be represented by the Canadian Embassy. It is not yet clear who will represent Venezuela here.
Venezuela, meanwhile, said it was proud that Israel had expelled its diplomats, calling Israel's leaders criminals while denying allegations of anti-Semitism at home.
"The response of the State of Israel is weak, late, and in any case for us it's an honor," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told Al-Jazeera. "We're proud that the State of Israel that exists today, led by these criminals, made this decision."
The comments were posted on his ministry's Web site.
Maduro also rejected accusations of anti-Semitism by a Jewish community leader, Abraham Levy.
"All of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities know religious discrimination is not a problem that has or will have a place in our society," Maduro said, complaining that every time a country criticizes Israel's government, it "is automatically added to the list of anti-Semites."
Hundreds of demonstrators supported Chavez's decision to expel Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Cohen, spraying graffiti and hurling shoes at the Israeli Embassy. Some people also spray-painted swastikas on the walls of a Caracas synagogue.
"Where we live, the anti-Semitism is sanctioned," Levy told the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem on Monday.
The director of the American Jewish Committee's Latin American Institute said in New York that Israel's move would likely spark little additional anti-Semitic backlash for Venezuela's Jews.
"I don't think it will make the life of Venezuelan Jews worse, because it's very bad as it is," Dina Siegel Vann told The Jerusalem Post.
She said there had been an outpouring of anti-Semitic rhetoric since the Gaza offensive.
"The efforts of Jewish groups to keep 'Jews' separate from Israel or Zionists, it doesn't work - for all practical purposes in people's minds it's the same thing," Siegel Vann said. "There are very few people who can say, 'These are Venezuelan Jews and they have nothing to do with what's going on in the Middle East.'"
Siegel Vann said it was incumbent on Venezuelan President Chavez, who last month signed a declaration against anti-Semitism along with the presidents of Argentina and Brazil, to ensure the safety of his Jewish citizens.
"The proof is in the pudding," she told the Post.