At 88, Venezuela’s would-be ambassador to Israel can’t wait to get to work

After 44 years as chief rabbi, Pynchas Brener is ready for a new career in diplomacy. But so far, Jerusalem recognizes him only as interim leader Guaido’s ‘special representative’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Pynchas Brener, December 9, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Pynchas Brener, December 9, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Rabbi Pynchas Brener’s business card says he’s the “Ambassador” of Venezuela to Israel, although Jerusalem and Caracas do not have diplomatic relations. In the upper left corner of his card one can see the official seal of Venezuela’s embassy in Israel — which doesn’t exist.

How is that possible? It’s simple: Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido in August appointed Brener, a great-grandfather who served as the Latin American country’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi for nearly half a century, as his official envoy to Israel.

In other words, Brener is an ambassador-in-waiting, for the time if and when diplomatic relations are established.

“How do you establish diplomatic relations? You name an ambassador, he names an ambassador. You know, it’s step by step. A first step was taken,” Brener said in an interview Monday.

“But then there’s also the recognition of two peoples, of the people of Israel and the people of Venezuela. We have a lot of things in common — we both love liberty, we both want human rights respect, there’s so many things we have in common,” the rabbi-turned-would-be-diplomat added.

Israel, the US and more than 50 other countries have recognized Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, but as long as President Nicolas Maduro continues to reign, the Jewish state is reluctant to recognize Brener as ambassador, merely considering him an envoy or special representative.

“For 60 years, Venezuela and Israel had diplomatic relations. Israel helped Venezuela with irrigation solutions, with medical problems. Israel, especially now, has become a very leading country, in many respects, in the world, so Venezuela can benefit a lot from the help of Israel,” Brenner said, speaking to The Times of Israel at the sidelines of a conference of Israel supporters held in Jerusalem.

“On the other hand, Venezuela is a very rich country in natural resources. We have the greatest oil reserves in the world. There are all sorts of minerals in Venezuela that one can use.”

In late January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a terse 24-word statement, recognized “the new leadership in Venezuela.”

“However, Israel has assumed the position right now that they’re going to do what Europe does with these ambassadors that are named by Guaido — they recognize them as the personal representative of Guaido, the interim president, but not as the ambassador of the country, because that president does not control the country right now,” Brener said.

The US, Canada, Argentina and more than 50 other countries have recognized Guaido’s envoys as ambassadors.

“But Israel has opted to go after a European model because many of the countries in Europe have economic interests in Venezuela so they’re afraid to take a position until Guaido really takes power in Venezuela.”

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido gestures during a meeting with workers and union leaders in Caracas on February 14, 2019. (Federico Parra/AFP)

So he will become the ambassador as soon as the Maduro regime is toppled?

“I am the ambassador now — I will be recognized by Israel to be the ambassador,” he insisted.

Brener, who as chief rabbi for 44 years has hosted in his house many Venezuelan leaders, including Hugo Chavez, was tapped by Guaido as Israel envoy, an appointment that was later affirmed by the National Assembly.

Pope Francis talks with Rabbi Pynchas Brener, former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Venezuela, during a private audience in the pontiff’s studio, at the Vatican, February 16, 2015. (AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano, Pool)

Guaido’s foreign minister, Julio Borges, who also attended the Israel Allies Foundation conference in Jerusalem this week, told The Times of Israel that his government was happy to advance ties with Israel but stressed that the ball was in Jerusalem’s court.

“We have a strong will to have relations with Israel,” he said. “We expect Rabbi Brenner to be recognized as representative of President Guaido’s government. We would like to have the Israeli government extend him full recognition, but that hasn’t happened yet. We would like Israel to consider taking a step forward and grant Rabbi Pynchas Brener full recognition as President Guaido’s ambassador to Israel.”

Borges, a veteran Venezuelan politician who is currently based in Bogota, Colombia, stressed that Venezuela was ready to establish “full diplomatic ties” with Israel. “But we are waiting for an official answer from the Israeli government that they formally accept Rabbi Pynchas Brener as ambassador,” he said.

“So far, he is only recognized as representative of President Guaido’s government. That’s a difference. We’re waiting for that. When that happens, we’re interested in opening an embassy in Israel. It’s a slow process.”

Then-president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Julio Borges (C) speaks at a press conference at the National Assembly building in Caracas on July 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)

While in Jerusalem, Borges met with Foreign Ministry officials, but was not granted a sit-down with Foreign Minister Israel Katz. He did attend a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to which all delegates from the Israeli Allies Foundation Foundation conference were invited.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem replied to a Times of Israel query by stating that Israel recognized Juan Guaido as interim-president and that Rabbi Brenner was his “special representative.”

Brener, who was born in Poland, raised in Peru and studied at Yeshiva and Columbia universities in New York City before becoming chief rabbi in Caracas, currently resides in Miami, Florida, to be near his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Will the Venezuelan embassy be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

Since his August appointment, the ambassador-in-waiting has been meeting with fellow Guaido envoys, business leaders, and others who could advance bilateral ties, even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

“I try to establish cultural, even economic, relationships for the future, for the day after, because Venezuela is going to be a great place to invest,” he said. “Because there’s a lot to be done, because many things were not done during the past 20 years.”

If and when Venezuela opens an embassy in Israel, he will immediately move to Israel to head the mission, Brener said.

Will the embassy be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

“We’ll talk about it when we get there. You know, we’re step by step,” he replied. Brener did not bring up the location of a future embassy when Guaido called him to announce his appointment as envoy to Israel.

“We did not discuss that, but you can well imagine that as a rabbi where my heart is, and we will try to do our best that it should be in the right place in Israel,” he said.

Rabbi Pynchas Brener (Gil Shefler/JTA)

Although Brener, 88, has never met Guaido in person, he spoke of him in glowing terms. “He’s a great guy. A young man, 35 years old, progressive, forward-looking, pragmatic, a lover of freedom and of free competition — you know, the same values that we have.”

But does he pass what American Jews know as the “kishke test”? Does he understand and appreciate the Jewish community?

“I think so. You know, Venezuelan people are very open, and the Jewish community there thrived for many, many years,” Brener said. “Unfortunately, this government makes it almost impossible to live in Venezuela… The minimum salary right now is something between five and eight dollars a month. How can you live on that? It’s very difficult.”

The Maduro government distributes food packages to its followers, but children are still dying of malnutrition and people with chronic diseases do not get the medical treatment they require, he lamented. “It’s a very difficult situation right now, and it must end. You need a change, it’s inevitable.”

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