Israel remained mum Tuesday and Wednesday on the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, while it examined the possibility of mending ties with a country that cut relations four years ago due to its late leader’s staunch pro-Palestinian positions.
By Wednesday afternoon, while most world leaders from the US to Iran and the Palestinian Authority had reacted to Chavez’s death, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres still refused to comment.
Israeli diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said Jerusalem is currently trying to assess whether Chavez’s departure could offer Israel an opportunity to mend ties.
Caracas recognized Israel in January 1950 and for decades relations were excellent. In 1998, Venezuela issued 10 commemorative stamps in honor of the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The stamps featured images of Israeli and Jewish motifs — such as first Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, Theodor Herzl, Moses, a Torah scroll and the Knesset — with the Israeli flag in the background.
But the Socialist Chavez, who came to power in 1999 and succumbed Tuesday to cancer at the age of 58, was a harsh critic of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Relations turned sour in 2006, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. In January 2009, Caracas severed diplomatic relations with Jerusalem in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, an operation against Hamas in Gaza that followed months of rocket fire against Israel’s population in the south.
Since Israel’s embassy in Caracas was closed, Canada assists Israeli citizens with consular services in the country.
In 2009, Chavez was quoted as saying that Israel seeks to “terminate the Palestinian people.” A close ally of Iran, Chavez was also a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. “We… are on the side of the Palestinian people’s memorable struggle… against the genocidal state of Israel that knocks down, kills and aims to terminate the Palestinian people,” Chavez told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that year.
Meanwhile, world leaders, even those with whom Chavez had a rocky relations, did not tarry in commenting on his passing.
“I was saddened to learn of the death of President Hugo Chavez,” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “As President of Venezuela for 14 years he has left a lasting impression on the country and more widely.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted: “I send my sincere condolences, and the Government’s, to the people of Venezuela and to President Chavez’s friends and family.” Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, reportedly called Chavez a “great politician,” and his death “a tragedy.”
UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon said he was “saddened” by Chavez’s passing. “He provided decisive impetus for new regional integration movements, based on an eminently Latin American vision, while showing solidarity toward other nations in the hemisphere.”
US President Barack Obama, in a statement his office released, stopped short of expressing regret for Chavez’s passing, saying merely that his country “reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
Former US president Jimmy Carter hailed Chavez for his “bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad.” He acknowledged not always having “agreed with all of the methods followed by his government,” yet said he hoped Venezuelans would remember “his positive legacies — especially the gains made for the poor and vulnerable.”
In the Muslim world, news of Chavez’s death caused great grief. Iran, one of Venezuela’s closest allies, proclaimed a day of mourning.
“His name is a reminder of cleanliness and kindness, bravery… dedication and tireless efforts to serve the people, especially the poor and those scarred by colonialism and imperialism,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said according to Reuters. “I offer my condolences to all nations, the great nation of Venezuela and his respected family over this tragic event.”
A senior official of Abbas’s Fatah movement also expressed regret over Chavez’s passing, praising particularly his anti-Israel stance during Operation Cast Lead and his support for the Palestinians’ bid for nonmember state status at the UN last year.
“Palestine says goodbye to a loyal friend who passionately defended our right to freedom and self determination,” Nabil Shaath told Ma’an News. “His contribution to the cause of dignity had no borders and reached the hearts and minds of the Arab world.”