Colombian president thanks Netanyahu for Israeli help clearing landmines

In Bogota, the two leaders sign tourism cooperation agreement, announce relaunch of defunct innovation fund

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shake hands during a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota, September 13, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shake hands during a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota, September 13, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Wednesday thanked Israel for promoting peace in his country, noting especially Jerusalem’s efforts to help defuse landmines.

“Israel has been a friend and ally of Colombia and lately it has been a great ally in the construction of peace in our country,” Santos said. “You have offered help to us in several areas, including, for example, something that is very humanitarian, which is the removal of anti-personnel mines.”

As a consequence of its 52-year civil war, Colombia has long been the country with the second highest number of landmines, after Afghanistan.

Santos acknowledged the dubious honor, and added, “We are in the process of correcting this shameful situation,” Santos said at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace. “We would like to strengthen the magnificent relations that we’ve enjoyed for so many years. As in every relationship, there is always room for growth. We want to cooperate much more with Israel. You have a lot of what we need, and we have a lot of what you need.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks during his welcoming ceremony at Narino presidential palace in Bogota, on September 13, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

Netanyahu’s whirlwind three-hour visit to Bogota was dominated by talk about Israel’s potential contribution to Colombia’s “post-conflict” efforts.

Before delivering statements, Netanyahu and Santos signed a tourism cooperation agreement at the Narino presidential palace.

On November 24, 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, signed a peace agreement that ended the bloody civil war.

Some 225,000 Colombians were killed and 8 million displaced during the conflict. The peace deal, signed after a four years of intense negotiations, provides for the disarmament of FARC and its incorporation into civilian life.

Between 1990 and 2015, more than 11,400 people were killed or injured in Colombia by mines or unexploded ordnance. The peace deal caused the number of victims to decline, but in 2016, Colombia still registered 89 casualties, plus 18 during the first half of 2017, according to UN figures.

In September 2016, Israel’s National Mine Action Authority, which operates under the auspices of the Defense Ministry, hosted eight Colombians for a week-long workshop on mine-clearing procedures.

After the historic peace agreement — for which Santos received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize — the government in Bogota created a special ministry devoted entirely to “post-conflict” matters. It currently deals with 200 national infrastructure projects, many of which Israel is seeking to get involved in.

“We’re excited by the post-conflict opportunities that are presented in Colombia,” Netanyahu said. He and Santos discussed several areas in which the two countries intend to step up cooperation, including agriculture, water management, tourism, cybersecurity and others.

He also announced the relaunch of the currently defunct Colombia-Israel Innovation Fund. “Maybe it will teach us finally how to make a good cup of coffee,” he joked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony to sign agreements with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Narino palace in Bogota, September 13, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

Santos, too, vowed to boost bilateral cooperation, hailing Israeli technology.

“Your country, Israel, is a world leader in terms of innovation,” he told Netanyahu. “We like to say that Colombians are born innovators. But if we learn from you how to channel this innovation into progress, then we will be able to do it much better.”

In his remarks, Netanyahu also addressed the threat of global Islamic terrorism, arguing that it had “two fountainheads” — the Islamic State and Iran.

“This has produced a newfound relationship between Israel and the Arab countries, because they now see Israel not as an adversary, but as an indispensable ally against these forces that want to take back humanity from its fantastic future back to its barbaric past,” he said.

“Iran is sending its forces and its terrorist outreaches everywhere, including into Latin America. We believe that all countries should unite, [just] as Israel is cooperating with Arab countries, to prevent the expansion of Iranian aggression.”

In 2013, the two countries, which this year are marking 60 years since establishing diplomatic relations in 1957, signed a free trade agreement that is awaiting for ratification by the Colombian parliament. Santos said he hoped it would go into effect within “the next few months.”

In 2016, bilateral trade reached $580 million. Nearly 100 Israeli companies operate in the country.

Under Santos, who cannot run for reelection in next year’s election due to term limits, Colombia has become one of Israel’s best friends in Latin America.

After his three-hour whirlwind visit on Bogota, Netanyahu headed back to his motorcade and made his way to Mexico, where on Thursday he is expected to meet President Enrique Peña Nieto and attend an event at a Jewish community center. On Friday, he will continue to New York, where he is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump on Monday. On Tuesday, he will address the United Nations General Assembly before heading back to Israel.

On Monday, Netanyahu arrived in Argentina for a two-day visit, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America.

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