'There is a breakthrough here'

Netanyahu to embark on first-ever trip by an Israeli PM to Latin America

After visiting Argentina, Colombia and Mexico next week, he heads to New York for the UN General Assembly and a likely meet with Trump

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a press conference ahead of their meeting in Jerusalem, June 11, 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a press conference ahead of their meeting in Jerusalem, June 11, 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to visit three Latin American countries next week, as a part of his ongoing effort to boldly go where none of his predecessors has gone before.

While Israeli presidents have previously visited the continent — most recently Shimon Peres in 2009 — Netanyahu’s four-day trip to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico marks the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister goes to South America. After his journey through Latin America, he is headed to New York, where he will address the United Nations General Assembly and is expected to meet with US President Donald Trump.

Latin America has had a complicated relationship with the Jewish state, but Israeli officials this week spoke of a “historic friendship” that has significantly intensified in recent years due to the ascent of “like-minded” governments.

“We are currently developing ties with Latin America. It is a great market in a large bloc of important countries. There is a breakthrough here,” Netanyahu said Wednesday at the Foreign Ministry.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet with his counterparts to deepen Israel’s economic and diplomatic alliances and to identify new opportunities for cooperation,” his spokesperson David Keyes told The Times of Israel.

On Sunday evening, Netanyahu and his entourage — which includes a delegation of businesspeople — is scheduled to take off for Buenos Aires, where he will meet with President Mauricio Macri of Argentina and attend ceremonies to commemorate two terror attacks in the early 1990s that targeted local Jews and Israeli diplomats.

On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Israeli embassy compound, killing 29 people, including Israelis.

Plaza Embajada de Israel in Buenos Aires, the site of Israel’s former embassy to Argentina (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Two years later, on July 18, 1994, 85 people were killed at the building of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in what was the largest bombing in Argentina’s history.

The Shiite terror group Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran have been found responsible for both attacks. Netanyahu will speak at ceremonies at the AMIA building and at the former embassy site.

The Buenos Aires Jewish center after it was attacked, July 1994 (photo credit: Cambalachero/Wikimedia commons)
The Buenos Aires Jewish center after it was attacked, July 1994 (Cambalachero/Wikimedia commons)

In the Argentinian capital, Netanyahu will also meet with President of Paraguay Horacio Cartes.

On Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s delegation will head to Bogota for a whirlwind visit of just a few hours to meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, sign a series of bilateral agreements and visit the local Jewish community.

“The trip to Colombia is going to be short but very intensive,” said Modi Ephraim, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Latin America. Bogota was added to the itinerary as an expression of thanks to the country’s “unconditional support for Israel” and the free trade agreement, which was signed between Jerusalem and Bogota and now awaits ratification by the Colombian parliament, he explained.

Later in the day, Netanyahu will make his way to Mexico — the world’s second largest Catholic country — for meetings with President Enrique Pena Nieto and representatives of the local Jewish community.

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

President Donald J. Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration….

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Saturday, January 28, 2017

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 Pena Nieto said it would continue unabatedly.

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.

According to Ephraim, the unfortunate episode has been forgotten and forgiven.

“This tweet was a misunderstanding. It’s behind us,” he told reporters Tuesday at the Foreign Ministry. The “readiness and enthusiasm” with which Mexico’s government and Jewish community prepare to host Netanyahu testify to that, he added. “Relations are excellent today. Cooperation continues in all fields. As always, complications arise occasionally between friends, but it’s certainly behind us.”

On September 15, Netanyahu will head from Mexico City to New York, where four days later he will deliver his annual address to the UN General Assembly. He is also scheduled to conduct a series of meetings in the Big Apple, including with President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela. No time and location for his expected meeting with Trump has been announced yet.

PM Netanyahu and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, December 14, 2016 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, has in recent months embarked on several trips to countries that have never, or rarely, been visited by Israeli leaders, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Australia, Singapore, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Liberia. He is planning a trip to Togo next month.

Offering Israeli technological knowhow and security expertise, he hopes to gain diplomatic support from countries that have traditionally supported the Palestinian cause.

Latin American states have a mixed record when it comes to Israel. In 1947, 13 Latin American countries voted in favor of the UN Partition Plan and subsequently established diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. However, many countries on the continent were long dominated by leftist governments that took a critical, sometimes even hostile, approach to Israel.

“Over the last few years we’re seeing a political change on the continent. We see many populist leftists governments disappear from the map, and today we have like-minded and very friendly governments,” Ephraim said. “The prime minister will meet four friendly presidents who changed their countries’ position toward Israel. We see an amazing development in bilateral ties.”

An Argentine and Israeli flag stand side by side at the office of Guillermo Borger, president of the Jewish community center AMIA, Argentina. Argentine Jewish organizations rejected on Thursday a plan announced by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez to establish a truth commission with Iran to clarify the 1994 terrorist attack against AMIA that killed 85 people. In the past, Argentine prosecutors had blamed Iran for the attack. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
An Argentine and Israeli flag stand side by side at the office of Guillermo Borger, president of the Jewish community center AMIA, Argentina. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

While Latin American nations for decades focused mainly on themselves, the veteran diplomat added, recently they have gained more influence in the international arena, which is another reason why strengthened ties could prove beneficial for Israel.

Two of the three countries Netanyahu is visiting — Mexico and Colombia — have not recognized a Palestinian state, which Ephraim hailed as a “victory” for Israeli diplomacy.

The prime minister’s trip will include a strong business component. Representatives of 30 Israeli companies — including Cellcom, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit, Refael and Netafim — will accompany Netanyahu to Buenos Aires and Mexico City.

“The worlds of diplomacy and business have been blending for a while. This is what Prime Minister Netanyahu refers to as diplomacy by technology,” said Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. “We’re including an increasing number of business delegations to our diplomatic trips, because this is the way the world is going, and that is one competitive advantage that Israel has — our technology and our capabilities.”

Netanyahu prioritizes opening foreign markets up to Israeli corporations, Groner told The Times of Israel in his Jerusalem office on Wednesday. “We’ve been doing it with Africa, India and China, and this trip is an important step toward doing it in South America.”

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