Colombian president downplays Jerusalem office: ‘We’re being practical’

Iván Duque says Bogota is Israel’s “number-one ally in Latin America,” seeks to deepen ties through tech collaboration.

 Ivan Duque Marquez, President of Colombia, speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021.  (photo credit:  REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY/POOL)
Ivan Duque Marquez, President of Colombia, speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021.

Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez was in Israel this week to promote cooperation between his country and Israel, especially in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship.

In that vein, Colombia opened the first office of iNNpulsa, its entrepreneurship and innovation agency, abroad in Israel – in Jerusalem, in fact.

Colombia joined countries like Brazil, Hungary and the Czech Republic in taking what Israel views as a step toward recognizing its sovereignty in Jerusalem.

And in fact, Duque said in his 2018 election campaign that he would be open to moving Colombia’s embassy to Jerusalem.

But Duque did not even visit his country’s new office in Israel’s capital, and was more circumspect on the subject in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

Asked why he made the move, Duque said encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship is one of his priorities.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez, November 8, 2021. (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez, November 8, 2021. (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

“I was inspired by the concept of the ‘Start-Up Nation,’” he said. “Israel has its Innovation Authority in Jerusalem, and I wanted the office close to the agency here. Since we have the free trade agreement [signed last year] I wanted to connect the dots between our innovation system and Israel’s... [and] bring Colombian entrepreneurs to have an interaction with the agency.”

Asked if opening an office in Jerusalem represents Colombia’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, Duque did not respond in the affirmative, but said, “We have to be very practical.

“I am visiting Jerusalem, staying in Jerusalem, visiting the Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Office in Jerusalem,” he said. “Our presence here, a state visit, is a symbol that we are here to strengthen the bilateral relationship.”

Duque chalked up the lack of a visit to the innovation office to the fact that it is only getting started and there is not much activity there, and said he would rather use his time to visit places like the Israel Innovation Authority, Start-Up Nation Central and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.

Not going to Colombia’s innovation office “doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “The most important thing is that pretty soon the office will be full of entrepreneurs and visitors able to engage with the Israeli ecosystem. I’m glad the office is opening here.”

Israeli diplomats worked for two years with Colombia toward the opening of an embassy or office in Jerusalem. A diplomatic source said Israel views the step positively, even if Duque is citing the location of the Israel Innovation Authority as its reason, rather than Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Duque is “a great friend of Israel, and relations with Colombia are at their peak,” the source said. “Colombia is our greatest ally in Latin America today.”

Among the ways Colombia has shown its friendship in recent years is by designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, abstaining on critical votes at the United Nations and signing a statement against antisemitism at the UN Human Rights Council.

In addition, Duque went to the Western Wall this week, still a rare occurrence for visiting dignitaries.

“It was a very important spiritual experience,” the Colombian president said, adding that he “expressed to God thanks and praise, and always request from him the best wisdom possible – but most importantly, the best forecast for our nation.”

“I’m a Catholic, I really practice my religion, and I also believe that visiting the Western Wall is a way to honor the roots of our religion. We always have to remember that Jesus was Jewish, that this historical site has suffered many adversities... It was an important Temple in the history of mankind. It is a way to honor the traditions and legacy, but also to praise the Jewish community in Colombia... to express our admiration and our gratitude to the Jewish people,” Duque added.

Colombia became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors in September, taking up a key position in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.

Duque said that Colombia supports the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 Iran Deal is known, and called for it to be implemented. Iran and the US are set to resume negotiations on November 29 to rejoin the JCPOA.

“We have to express our worry, because for some time Iran has not allowed personnel of the IAEA to monitor the sites in the agreement, so we will be at the Board of Governors fulfilling our work and being pretty much loyal to the agreement and making sure the agreement is complied [with],” he said.

As a member of the Board of Governors, Colombia “will not support any movement that creates danger or uncertainty or represents a threat to world peace,” Duque added.

Iran has a strong presence in Latin America, especially in Venezuela, which shares a border with Colombia, and especially through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Colombia banned the Shi’ite terrorist organization in 2020.

“Colombia always shared intelligence with Israel to fight international terrorism,” Duque said, noting that earlier this year, the Colombian authorities thwarted a Hezbollah plot to attack Jewish facilities in Bogotá, and a member of an ISIS cell was arrested in Bogotá last week.

“Israel knows Colombia is its number-one ally in Latin America, and our intelligence capacities have been built over time, devoted to identifying terrorism, including Hezbollah, in Latin America,” he stated.

Duque said that Israel-Colombia ties are built on shared values of “democracy, security as a public good and a cornerstone of democracy... private initiative as an engine of social transformation, innovation, creativity and building markets.”

The free-trade agreement signed last year shows the strength of those ties, he added, expressing hope to build on it. To that end, he attended the launch of the Israel-Colombia Business Council on Tuesday.

“The next challenge is to do it better, increase the pace of our trade and the things we’re going to build,” he said. “We’re going to see progress over time, with the private sector investing in this relationship, which is something we value.”

With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) still underway in Glasgow and Israel making commitments to slash its carbon footprint in the coming decades, Duque said Colombia and Israel can work together on “sus-tech-ability,” his portmanteau for technology to promote sustainability.

“Colombia has been a regional leader in energy transition, moving from 0.2% [renewables] to 20% by the end of next year and developing solar and wind capacities. We also identified a green hydrogen energy road map and can become a very important hub of energy exports to Israel of hydrogen, and Israeli companies can produce hydrogen in Columbia,” he stated.

Colombian biodiversity can go hand-in-hand with Israel’s technological know-how, Duque suggested.

“We can use our joint efforts to reach 50% of CO2 production by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050,” he said.