Netanyahu arrives in Colombia, looks to help post-conflict efforts
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Netanyahu arrives in Colombia, looks to help post-conflict efforts

PM's whirlwind visit focuses on ways that Israel can help rebuild South American country after 52 years of civil war

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (R) attend a ceremony to welcome the Israeli leader at the Narino palace in Bogota on September 13, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Raul Arboleda)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (R) attend a ceremony to welcome the Israeli leader at the Narino palace in Bogota on September 13, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Raul Arboleda)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Bogota Wednesday for a whirlwind three-hour visit, with Israel’s potential contribution to the Colombia’s post-conflict efforts expected to take front and center, Israeli officials said.

Israel seeks to play a significant role in helping Colombia get back on its feet, half a decade after the Latin American country’s bloody civil war ended with a historic peace deal.

Speaking to members of the Jewish community after his arrival, Netanyahu said this was his second visit to the country. He had been there once before, he recalled, during his time as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Israel was “uniquely qualified” to assist the country in its post-conflict  efforts, he said.

Yuval Rotem, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, October 13, 2016. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

“Colombia is a special case, it’s an interesting case. It’s a country on the rise,” explained Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem, who is joining Netanyahu on this week’s trip to Latin America.

“Economically, they’re doing very well. Basically, they are embracing post-conflict, which means the country is gearing up to a social healing and economic reconstruction. Israel wants to have its own contribution to this process,” Rotem said.

After his quick-fire visit to Bogota, which includes a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos and the signing of bilateral agreements, Netanyahu will head to Mexico. On Monday, he arrived in Argentina for a two-day visit, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America.

After the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, signed a peace agreement in November 2016, Santos’s administration 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.

“There are many projects that the ministry of post-conflict is trying to promote and we believe that, in a modest way, we can be also a part in this journey,” Rotem told The Times of Israel as the prime minister’s plane made its way from Buenos Aires to Bogota.

Rotem said most of the efforts would focus on Israel’s expertise in Agriculture.

Some 225,000 Colombians were killed and eight million displaced during the decade long civil war. The peace deal, signed on November 24, 2016, after four years of intense negotiations, proscribes the FARC’s disarmament and incorporation into civilian life.

“President Santos himself has been always committed to the State of Israel in terms of its own security and its position internationally. But he’s equally devoted to the process of peace within his own country, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in his visit will try to explore what other opportunities there are for Israel and Colombia to jointly work together for the benefit of the two countries and the process of President Santos to take Colombia in a new direction,” Rotem said.

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

In May, Santos said his government was committed “to a far-reaching program of rural development for the largely low-income population, including land, titles, credit, roads and crop substitution programs,” adding that his country’s transition to peace would require, among other things, the continued assistance of the international community.

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

“There have been strong relations between the two countries. Colombia is among the few Latin American countries that did not vote in favor of upgrading ‘Palestine’ as a non-member state at the UN a few years ago,” said Hebrew University’s Arie M. Kacowicz, an expert on Latin America.

Leah Soibel, the founder and of Fuente Latina, an organization promoting stronger ties between Israel and Latin America, said that in Bogota, Netanyahu will likely discuss with Santos Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in neighboring Venezuela and how the economic crisis is impacting Colombia’s security given the shared border.

“Colombia has traditionally been Israel’s strongest partner in the region regarding military and security ties. Keep an eye out for advances in those relations,” she said.

In October 2012, Santos said that the world should recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

Accepting the 2016 Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to end the 52-year-old Colombian civil war, he portrayed the deal he brokered as a “model for the resolution of armed conflicts that have yet to be resolved around the world.” Even seemingly intractable conflicts can be solved, he went on, citing Syria, Yemen or South Sudan, but not mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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