Colombia’s president opens country’s first innovation office abroad in Jerusalem

‘This step confirms that Israel is our key partner in innovation,’ says Ivan Duque, who is leading a 95-person delegation, including six ministers, to Israel

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Colombia's President Ivan Duque (L)shakes hands with Israel's ambassador to Colombia, Christian Cantor in Jerusalem on November 9 2021 (Jorge Novominski)
Colombia's President Ivan Duque (L)shakes hands with Israel's ambassador to Colombia, Christian Cantor in Jerusalem on November 9 2021 (Jorge Novominski)

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque opened a trade and innovation office in Jerusalem on Tuesday in a move seen as deepening already close ties between Israel and a key ally in South America.

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

Israel’s innovation authority hosted the opening event, attended by Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Innovation Authority Chairman Ami Appelbaum, and Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Latin America Jonathan Peled.

“Colombia is a true friend of Israel,” said Farkash-Hacohen. “Governments create pacts but it is people who build the bridges…Colombia’s new innovation office in Jerusalem, Innpulsa, will create significant momentum for strategic cooperation in the fields of science and technology.”

“Today we mark a milestone in the relations between Colombia and Israel…” tweeted Duque. “This step confirms that Israel is our key partner in innovation.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Duque in Jerusalem, where the two leaders discussed the Iran threat, among other regional challenges.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) shakes hands with Colombia’s President Ivan Duque at the Prime Minister’s Offce in Jerusalem, November 9, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Bennett thanked Duque for adding Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to Colombia’s list of terrorist organizations.

On Monday evening, President Isaac Herzog hosted a state dinner at the President’s Residence in Duque’s honor.

“Today we know that our relationship has gotten to our highest peak ever,” said Duque in a toast. “We have many fronts on which we are working together. But we want to take it to an even better level. Because Colombia is Israel’s number one ally in Latin America.

“We want to be your Start-Up Nation sister in Latin America,” he concluded.

Duque is 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 also joined the president.

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque raises a toast with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, November 9, 2021 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

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 Peled, the Foreign Ministry’s Latin America desk deputy director, in a briefing with reporters last week.

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.

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

Duque landed on Sunday and spent the day visiting Jerusalem’s Old City before participating in an economic event at night.

“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 2010 Mavi Marmara incident and found that Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza was legal.

Colombian Transportation Minister Ángela María Orozco, who joined Duque, participated in the Prime Minister’s Smart Mobility Summit 2021 in Tel Aviv on Sunday and Monday.

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.”

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

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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