Colombian president to open innovation office in Jerusalem next week

With free trade agreement in effect, Ivan Duque to lead 95-person delegation, including six ministers, to Israel to boost economic ties; will meet with Bennett and Herzog

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Colombia's President Ivan Duque gestures after receiving the presidential sash during his inauguration ceremony at Bolivar Square in Bogota, on August 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)
Colombia's President Ivan Duque gestures after receiving the presidential sash during his inauguration ceremony at Bolivar Square in Bogota, on August 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque will open a trade and innovation office in Jerusalem next week during a three-day visit to Israel, Foreign Ministry officials said Thursday.

Duque will be leading a 95-person delegation that includes the ministers of defense, health, agriculture, trade, environmental protection, and transportation. Colombian officials, businessmen and representatives of the Jewish community will also join the president.

The size and makeup of the Colombian delegation “underscores the importance of the relationship and their desire — and ours of course —  to broaden cooperation in a whole range of issues,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Latin America desk deputy director, Yonatan Peled, in a briefing with reporters.

The Jerusalem office of Innpulsa, Bogota’s entrepreneurship and innovation agency, will be Colombia’s first innovation center abroad. Duque plans on opening similar offices in South Korea and San Francisco, Peled said.

Duque announced his intentions to open the office in August 2020, during a videoconference with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marking the ratification of a free-trade agreement between the two countries.

The new mission will help Colombia “consolidate the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he said then.

Colombia’s outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos, center, welcoming newly sworn-in President Ivan Duque at the presidential palace, after his inauguration ceremony in Bogota, Colombia, August 7, 2018. (Colombia’s presidential press office/ via AP)

This will be Duque’s first visit to Israel, and the second by a Colombian president. Juan Manuel Santos visited in 2013.

Duque is scheduled to land on Sunday and will spend the day visiting Jerusalem’s Old City before participating in an economic event at night. The next day, he will meet with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. He will open the innovation office on Tuesday before heading home.

During a series of innovation-centered events over the course of the trip, Duque is expected to present opportunities for cooperation and investment in Colombian companies to Israeli entrepreneurs.

“We are in a very unique stage in Israel-Colombia relations,” said Christian Cantor, Israel’s ambassador in Bogota during the briefing. “Colombia is a very, very significant diplomatic anchor for Israel in Latin America.”

“Duque is a very good friend of Israel and of the Jewish people,” said Cantor.

Duque was then-president Alvaro Uribe’s assistant on the UN’s Palmer Commission that looked into the May 2020 Mavi Marmara incident and found that Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza was legal.

Prime Minister Netanyahu participated, via videoconference, at a event marking the ratification of a free-trade agreement between Israel and Colombia, August 10, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Colombian Transportation Minister Ángela María Orozco, who will be joining Duque, will also participate in the Prime Minister’s Smart Mobility Summit 2021 in Tel Aviv on November 8-9. The conference will bring together world leaders for dialogue on the future of transportation.

Flavia Santoro Trujillo, head of ProColombia, the government office that promotes foreign investment in the country, will be joining for a series of meetings, as will the head of Colombia’s development bank.

The visit is the result of two years of work by Israeli diplomats in Colombia, Cantor said.

“Colombia is an island of economic stability and regional economic leadership,” said Michal Gur Arye, director of the Latin America, Caribbean & Africa economic desk at the Foreign Ministry. “Therefore, the relationship is important both bilaterally and regionally.”

The free-trade agreement between Israel and Colombia, the third-largest economy in Latin America, went into effect in August 2020.  The agreement is Colombia’s first FTA with any country in the Middle East and will allow 97 percent of Colombian goods to enter the Israeli market without tariffs.

Currently, Brazil and Honduras operate trade offices in Jerusalem. Other countries that have trade and/or defense offices in the capital include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Australia. Israel has touted the offices as diplomatic achievements, though they fell short of hopes for a flood of countries opening full embassies in Jerusalem after the US made the move in 2018.

While running for president in 2018, Duque told supporters that he would be open to moving Colombia’s embassy to Jerusalem and wanted to improve good relations with Israel.

Questioned about his statement days later, Duque said he supported a two-state solution and wanted his eventual government to contribute to peace efforts. “Colombia cannot stir up hatred in the Middle East,” he said then.

In August 2018, Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, unexpectedly decided to recognize a Palestine state days before leaving office, making Colombia the last country in South America do to so.

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