'We correct now a historic lapse'

In Mexico, Netanyahu seeks a ‘pardon’ — for not visiting sooner

Months after sparking anger by tweeting support for Trump’s border wall, PM hails Mexicans as a ‘great people’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto meet in Mexico City, September 14, 2017 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto meet in Mexico City, September 14, 2017 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday heaped effusive praise on Mexico, asking for a “pardon” for not visiting the country earlier.

His laudatory comments may have been an effort to fully repair bilateral ties, which underwent a serious crisis earlier this year after Netanyahu expressed support for US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall between the US and Mexico.

“This is a milestone,” Netanyahu said at a joint appearance with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. He noted that, “as incredible as it sounds,” his visit to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico this week marked the first time an Israeli prime minister came to Latin America.

“I would say it’s an unpardonable lapse, but we want a pardon. We’re here,” Netanyahu went on. “We think we correct now a historic lapse, because Mexico is a great country. It’s one of the world’s great economies. It’s great nation, a great people, a great culture. We want to be close, even closer, to Mexico. And this is what this meeting signifies.”

The prime minister then congratulated Mexico on its Independence Day, on Saturday, and expressed condolences to those who lost their lives in last week’s devastating earthquake. “We have, as you said, offered any help that we can give to Oaxaca and Chiapas and anything that you deem appropriate, we stand ready, because we stand with you.”

The Foreign Ministry last week said it would provide aid for the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas that were hardest hit in the quake. The 8.1-magnitude quake killed at least 65 people. Officials said 37 people were killed in Juchitan, Oaxaca, the city hit hardest.

The day after an 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico’s Pacific coast policemen stand next to collapsed buildings in Juchitan de Zaragoza, state of Oaxaca September 9, 2017. (AFP/RONALDO SCHEMIDT)

Israel and Mexico established formal diplomatic ties 65 years ago, “but those relations are gathering steam now,” Netanyahu went on. “There are innate sympathies between our people,” he said.

Nieto, who on Thursday had just returned from the areas stricken by the quake, thanked Israel for the help and solidarity. He also hailed the “sound relationship” between Mexico City and Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO

Posted by The Prime Minister of Israel on Thursday, September 14, 2017

In January, a tweet in which Netanyahu backed Trump’s plan to build a border wall between Mexico and the US prompted outrage among the Mexican political leadership — which demanded an apology and summoned Israel’s ambassador — and the local Jewish community.

Netanyahu’s tweet, which was also posted on his Facebook page, caused an “alarming” wave of online anti-Semitism, an Argentine Jewish watchdog reported at the time.

Netanyahu played down his tweet, saying he was merely stressing the success of Israel’s security fence and did not comment about US-Mexico relations. Calling the spat a “passing disagreement or misunderstanding,” he noted his “long, fruitful and very friendly relationship” with Nieto, and said it would continue unabated.

On the same day, President Reuven Rivlin called his Mexican counterpart and apologized for Netanyahu’s words, but Pena Nieto maintained bilateral ties had been “hurt” by the incident.

Israeli officials in Netanyahu’s delegation this week said the Mexicans got over the remarks and no longer harbored a grudge.

“Yes, that unfortunate incident is well behind Israel. The Israel-Mexico relationship is stronger than any wall,” agreed Leah Soibel, the founder and CEO of Fuente Latina, an organization promoting ties between Israel and Latin America. “At the time of the tweet a big brouhaha was indeed caused. But in the big scheme of things, it was just a bump in the road and is now truly in the past.”

Other experts have their doubts, though. “Mexicans do not forget or forgive so quickly, and what Netanyahu did was a serious mistake that had to be amended by the Israeli president and the interior minister [Aryeh Deri],” said Arie Kacowicz, a professor at the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who focuses on Latin America and the Middle East.

Deri, after receiving angry messages from Mexican Jews, urged the prime minister to apologize for his tweet.

On Thursday, neither Netanyahu nor Nieto mentioned the episode during their public statements, focusing instead on their mutual desire to increase bilateral trade and deepen cooperation in a wide range of fields.

At the event, officials from both countries sign a series of bilateral agreements: A memorandum of understanding on space research, and agreements on aviation, communications and development.

Posted by Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday, September 14, 2017

Earlier on Thursday, Netanyahu met with 16 heads of Mexico’s leading cooperations, seeking to get them interested in investing in Israel. At a “power breakfast,” he told them about Israel’s hi-tech prowess, particularly in the field of cybersecurity and automotive technology, and invited them to hold their next meeting in Jerusalem.

He also addressed a Mexican-Israeli business forum for 150 Israeli and Mexican businessmen, which was attended Mexican Economy Secretary ldefonso Guajardo Villarreal also attended the event.

“Mexico is a giant economy, among the 12 leading economies in the world. Soon it could be ranked even higher and we must be here, and in a big way,” Netanyahu said.

Later on Thursday, Netanyahu was scheduled to speak an event at a local Jewish community center.

On Friday, he will head to New York for a Monday meeting with Trump and his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. He will return to Israel in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, later in the week.

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