BUENOS AIRES — When Dorit Shavit became Israeli ambassador to Argentina, she was given simple instructions: maintain good relations with the country, she was told, in the vague, seemingly straightforward way in which a president might be told to lead a nation.
But while the directive was simple, Shavit’s latest job will involve her in a historical debate focused on the way in which Israel must balance its foreign policy interests with its commitment to defending the interests of an Argentine Jewish community that numbers almost a quarter of a million.
The debate became a key issue on Sunday after Argentina signed an agreement with Iran to launch a “truth commission” to investigate the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish Center that killed 86 people, without updating Israel. The Israeli Foreign Ministry responded to the announcement by saying that Israel had expected to be kept abreast of AMIA developments, but simultaneously revealed that Israel wants to be informed, but not necessarily involved.
On Monday night it was revealed that Israel had summoned the Argentinian ambassador for clarifications.
Asked recently by The Times of Israel about the fact that the perpetrators of the attack have yet to be brought to justice, Shavit maintained that Israel has no active role in the case.
“We have to remember the basic thing: This is the Argentine people, Argentine territory, Argentine institutions, and usually we hear from the Argentine regime that it was an attack against Argentina. But we, as part of the Jewish community, follow it very closely, and we really really hope that these people will be brought to justice and will pay for what they did,¨ she said.
As such, it is the Argentine Jewish community that has come to a head with the Argentine government over an issue that, some analysts say, is truly about Israel, Iran and Middle Eastern geopolitics.
At a plenary session of the Latin American Jewish Congress in Caracas, Venezuela, last week, leaders of the Jewish community rejected Argentina’s negotiations with the Iranian government in Zurich, and vociferously condemned the secretive nature of talks concerning the extradition of suspects linked to the attack. Until Sunday, when Argentina’s president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner publicized the latest development in a series of Twitter posts, Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had only revealed that meetings with Iranian diplomats were “highly productive.”
Although Argentina became the first Latin American country to open an embassy in Tel Aviv, and the only Latin American country to sign a trade agreement with the fledgling State of Israel, the relationship between the countries has never been lacking in complications. Now, Shavit must rely on her relevant experience to negotiate the obstacles she will surely encounter in her position at the center of the debate.
Shavit majored in Islamic Studies at Hebrew University and never intended to serve in the Foreign Ministry. After the Yom Kippur War, though, the Agranat Commission recommended that intelligence analysis be divided among additional units, and she was recruited for her knowledge of Arabic culture.
She has since been assigned in Egypt, the US, and Brazil, and her memory overflows with stories that she can recall with ease in five languages. Most recently, she resigned from her position as deputy general of the Latin American and Caribbean Division of the ministry to become the first woman to serve as Israel’s highest ranking envoy to Argentina.
Just as most ambassadors must emphasize commonalities over differences in order to promote goodwill between countries, Shavit highlights the economic ties between Israel and Argentina; the expansion of trade will be one of her priorities when she is not representing Israel’s position on the AMIA bombing.
Despite the regional free trade agreement that Argentina signed with Israel last year, she estimates that the 4-5 percent of Israeli trade that is currently conducted with Latin America is very, very far away from the potential.
“I think that the soil is fertile and ready for improvement,” she said, from an ambassadorial office behind a series of doors and security guards.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon pledged that the embassy would be rebuilt in 2013. For now, or at least for the foreseeable future, Shavit seems resigned to the fact that the envoy will continue operating on the tenth floor of a nondescript Buenos Aires high-rise.
She is, however, hopeful at the prospect of restarting an investigation of the attack on the Israeli embassy, and she maintains that the bombing of the embassy differs from that of the AMIA because it was an attack on Israeli diplomats, whom Israel, like any country, has a responsibility to protect.
The appointment of Shavit may not have been widely noticed, but at the present moment, it is far from insignificant.
“Obviously, sometimes we have discussions, sometimes we agree to disagree. It’s happened between all countries. It doesn’t mean we’re not friendly; it doesn’t mean we don’t want to continue investing in other areas, and we continue discussing and trying to persuade,” she said, before adding, with a diplomatic sense of optimism, that she felt welcome in Argentina.