Israel and Latin America: It’s Complicated (The Times of Israel, 13 September 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Latin America is welcome and long-overdue.  Indeed, it is astonishing that no Israeli prime minister before him ever paid an official visit there.  As Israel is trying to counter Iran’s global reach and to crack the “automatic majority” at the United Nations, investing diplomatic efforts in Latin America is the right thing to do.

Latin America played an important role in the birth of Israel.  Three of the eleven countries that constituted the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) were Latin American (Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay).  The representative of Guatemala at UNSCOP was George Garcia Granados, a pro-Zionist who had met twice with Menachem Begin in secret when the British were trying to kill him.  Granados pushed hard to get UNSCOP to adopt partition and to get it approved by the General Assembly.

The President of the General Assembly at the time of the vote on partition was Oswaldo Aranha from Brazil.  Like Granados, Aranha also had strong Zionist sympathies.  The vote on UNSCOP’s partition proposal had been scheduled to take place on the 27th of November 1947.  As the vote was approaching, however, it became clear that there was no majority for the approval of partition.  More time was needed to gather support, especially among Latin American countries.  Aranha came up with an idea that saved the day: November 28 was Thanksgiving, he reminded delegates, and it would be unfair to keep American workers at the UN.  He therefore suggested renewing the debates and votes over the UNSCOP proposal after Thanksgiving.  His proposal was accepted, and the extra 48 hours enabled the Jewish Agency to gather more support among UN delegations.  During the vote, the support of Latin American countries was critical.  At the General Assembly, 33 countries voted “yes,” 13 voted “no,” and 10 abstained.  Of the 33 “yes” votes, 13 were from Latin America (i.e. 40%).

Despite this diplomatic support, however, relations were overshadowed by the shelter offered by Latin American governments to senior Nazi criminals such as Adolph Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Joseph Mengele.  After Israel captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, the Argentinian government complained that Israel had violated diplomatic étiquette, but it did not apologize for granting Eichmann a save heaven in the first place.  Other Nazis lived a happy life in Argentina and died in old age, such as Erich Priebke who died in October 2013 at age 100.  Like many other Nazis, he lived a comfortable life in the Argentinian ski resort of Bariloche, where Joseph Mengele took his driving test and where Erich Priebke ran a deli.  It was said to be the best in town, and customers used to call it “the Nazi deli.”

While most Latin American countries voted in favor of partition at the UN in 1947, their voting patterns at the General Assembly became unfavorable to Israel from the 1960s onward.  In 1964, a voting group of third world countries (known as “Group of 77”) was formed at the General Assembly.  Latin American countries were part of this bloc, which was very much influenced by its Arab and Muslim members.  To Israel, Latin America was “lost” diplomatically but it still mattered economically because of its oil reserves.  After the Iranian revolution of 1979 Israel lost a major oil supplier and oil exporters such as Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador became valuable alternatives.

In addition, Latin America once again became diplomatically relevant to Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Due to the oil embargo, most African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Israel, while Western Europe and Japan kowtowed to Arab demands.   Israel tried to bypass its diplomatic isolation by leveraging common interests with unsavory regimes.  In the case of Latin America, this policy meant selling weapons to anti-Soviet and authoritarian countries.

Of all Latin American states, only Cuba severed its diplomatic relations with Israel after the Yom Kippur War.  Latin America became the last bastion of Israel’s presence in the Third World after 1973: Israel was isolated from Africa, and it had no diplomatic relations with China and India.  Except for Cuba after 1959 and Nicaragua after 1979, Latin America did not become “red” during the Cold War.  The United States was eager to prevent a Communist “domino effect” in what it considered to be its backyard.  In Chile, the Socialist Salvador Allende was eliminated by the CIA shortly after his election in 1973.  Latin American dictators knew they could count on the United States to keep Communist rebels at bay.

Yet this policy was suspended under Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-1981).  Carter stopped giving carte blanche to anti-Communist dictators in Latin America because of their human rights violations.  For example, Carter vetoed in 1977 the granting of a loan to Argentina for the purchase of US weapons.  Israel filled the void temporarily left by America by becoming a major arms supplier to most Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  In 1980, for example, Israel was reportedly providing 80% of El Salvador’s military hardware.

Except for Nicaragua after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, all Central American countries bought weapons from Israel.  This was a win-win relationship since Latin America needed Israel’s weapons as much as Israel needed Latin America’s oil (especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution).  Communist guerillas also happened to have close ties with the PLO and with anti-Western Arab leaders.  The Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, had been cooperating with the PLO since 1969 and they enjoyed the military and financial support of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In recent years, relations between Israel and Latin America are overshadowed by the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.  On the 18th of July 1994, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 people.  It was revealed in October 2006 that Iran had ordered the bombing and that Hezbollah had carried it out.  In June 2013, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor, issued a 500-page report showing that Iran had been building a network in Argentina for 30 years.  Nisman’s report revealed that Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are conducted directly by Iranian officials and through Hezbollah.  Nisman was found dead on 18 January 2015, hours before he was scheduled to testify in Congress.  Nisman has drafted warrants for the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for her alleged role in covering-up the role of Iran and Hezbollah in the 1994 bombing.

Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America is growing through the expansion of Iran’s diplomatic and intelligence missions, businesses and investments.  Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  From this base, deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.  The Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.  Hezbollah has gained entry into Latin America through Iran, which has strengthened ties with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Kirchner, had developed strong ties with Iran.  Her successor and political opponent, Maurizio Macri (elected in December 2015), has rectified Argentina’s foreign policy.  He is well-disposed toward the West and toward Israel, and Netanyahu is right to build a personal relationship with him as well as with other like-minded Latin American leaders.  The prime minister’s trip to Latin America is timely, and his diplomatic initiative praiseworthy.