With the long-overdue relocation of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem being an accomplished deal, Israel awaits other countries to follow suit. Paraguay and Guatemala have already done so, and the question is which countries will be next. It is interesting to note that the two countries that have moved their embassies to Jerusalem immediately after the US are from Latin America. There is a reason for this, yet things are not so self-evident.
While Israel has well-established relations and interdependence with countries of North America and the Eastern Hemisphere, investing diplomatic efforts in Latin America is a high priority.
Immediately after World War II, Latin America took a special interest and played an important role in the birth of the State of Israel. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) included three Latin American countries (Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay) out of the eleven countries that constituted this special UN committee. The representative of Guatemala at UNSCOP was George Garcia Granados. Ambassador Granados, a pro-Zionist, had met on two occasions with Menachem Begin in secret, during the time the British tried to kill him. Granados cast the very first vote for the creation of the State of Israel, and Guatemala became the first Latin American country to recognize Israel after the proclamation of the State.
At the time of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, Granados went even further. He organized a lobby of South American countries to support the partition plan. In 1956, Guatemala became the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, with Granados appointed as its first ambassador. His remarkable efforts on behalf of the Jewish state were duly recognized: The Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Ramat-Gan named streets to honor him.
The President of the General Assembly at the time of the vote on partition was also from Latin America: Oswaldo Aranha of Brazil. Like Granados, Aranha also had strong Zionist sympathies. The vote on UNSCOP’s partition proposal had been scheduled to take place on the 27th of November 1947, the day before Thanksgiving. As the vote was approaching, however, it became clear that there was no majority for the approval of partition. Additional time was required to gather support. Aranha came up with a clever idea that saved the day: November 28 was Thanksgiving. He argued it would be unfair to keep American workers at the UN on that day. He therefore suggested postponing the debates and votes over the UNSCOP proposal until after Thanksgiving. His proposal was accepted, and the extra 48 hours enabled the Jewish Agency to gather more support among UN delegations. During the vote, the support of Latin American countries was critical. At the General Assembly, 33 countries voted “yes,” 13 voted “no,” and 10 abstained. Of the 33 “yes” votes, 13 were from Latin America.
One would have thought that after such solid diplomatic support, relations between Israel and Latin American countries would only have strengthened and become a cornerstone for consistent reliance and solidarity in world forums.
Sadly, the friendly relations that were cultivated between Israel and Latin America were overshadowed by the shelter offered by Latin American governments to senior Nazi criminals. Among the high-profile Nazis to whom asylum was granted were Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Josef Mengele, the “doctor” of Auschwitz.
The State of Israel, with the Holocaust deeply engraved in its conscience, and now as the de facto nation-state representing the Jewish people, could not just idly sit by. Friendly relations or not, Nazis needed to be captured and brought to justice. The Mossad captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 in a clandestine operation. A crisis erupted. The Argentinian government admonished Israel for having violated diplomatic etiquette. As one can expect, this was a one-way, double-standard complaint, as Argentina never apologized for granting Eichmann a safe haven in the first place. Eichmann was not the only Nazi living in Argentina. Erich Priebke, the unrepentant organizer of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, who died in October 2013 at age 100, also enjoyed relative freedom and peace of mind under the Argentinian sun in the ski resort of Bariloche, which was also frequented by Josef Mengele. As a matter of fact, Priebke ran the famous yellow-brick Vienna Delicatessen over there, where some good “charcuterie” (cold cuts) and cheeses were said to be the best in town; it was known as “the Nazi deli” and it bothered no one.
The Eichmann episode of 1960 proved to be a turning point in Latin American-Israel diplomatic relations. The fact that other Gestapo and SS commanders were living in Latin American countries, without a need to change their names, added to this continent’s Nazi reputation. The overall attitude of Latin American countries in the General Assembly from 1960 onward became negative. This is self-evident when one looks at the subsequent voting patterns.
In 1964, a voting group of third-world countries (known as the “Group of 77”) was formed at the General Assembly. Latin American countries were part of this bloc, which was very much influenced by its Arab and Muslim members. As a result, Israel gave up on Latin America diplomatically, but it still mattered economically because of its oil reserves.
This was highlighted by two major events that took place in the 1970s. Firstly, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was isolated with an oil embargo. Because of this embargo, most African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Israel, while Western Europe and Japan bowed to the Arab demands. Secondly, Israel needed alternatives after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which it lost Iran as a major oil supplier (how times have changed).
Because of these two challenging developments, Latin America, with oil rich countries and exporters such as Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador, became suddenly important again. In exchange for oil, Israel became a major weapon supplier to these countries, even though most had dismal regard for human rights.
After the Yom Kippur War, Israel fared well among Latin American states; Cuba was the only country that severed its diplomatic relations with Israel. While, after 1973, Israel was isolated from Africa, and had not yet developed diplomatic relations with China and India, Latin America became the last bastion of Israel’s presence in the Third World after 1973.
Things changed during the Cold War. The United States’ foreign policy was focused on preventing a Communist “domino effect” in what it considered to be its backyard. The United States took active steps to enforce this policy wherever possible. In Chile, the Socialist Salvador Allende was eliminated by the CIA shortly after his election in 1973. With this policy, Latin American dictators knew they could count on the United States to keep Communist rebels at bay, but this did not last long.
After President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in 1977, this policy was suspended. His main reason was due to the human rights violations committed by the anti-Communist dictators in Latin America. Subsequently, in 1977, Carter vetoed the granting of a loan to Argentina for the purchase of US weapons. This became a sweet spot for Israel. It filled the void temporarily left by the United States by becoming a major arms supplier not only to Argentina, but also to most Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
All Central American countries bought weapons from Israel, except for Nicaragua. This was a win-win situation, since Latin America needed Israel’s weapons as much as Israel needed Latin America’s oil. This was especially the case after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Israel selling its (high-level) technical know-how for natural resources is not something that started recently.
The good relationships with Latin American countries did not last very long. Once again, outside elements, to which Israel could not close its eyes, interfered. Starting in the 1990s, relations between Israel and Latin America soured due to the influence of Iran and Hezbollah. The most notorious incident was the one that took place on July 18, 1994 (only two years after the Israeli embassy bombing in Buenos Aires in 1992!), when the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was targeted in a terror attack, killing 85 and wounding more than 300 innocent people. Iran’s fingerprints were found on the planning and ordering of this attack, while Hezbollah’s were found to have pulled the trigger.
In June 2013, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor, issued a 500-page report proving that Iran had been building a network in Argentina for 30 years. Nisman’s report revealed that Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are conducted directly by Iranian officials and through its proxy Hezbollah. Not long after issuing his detailed report, Nisman was found dead (on 18 January 2015), hours before he was scheduled to testify in Congress. This is a definite sign as to how strong and sophisticated Iran’s capabilities have grown in Latin America. Nisman had prepared warrants for the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for her alleged part in covering-up the role of Iran and Hezbollah in the 1994 bombing.
Wouldn’t the relocation of the Argentinian embassy to Jerusalem constitute the best antidote that the Argentinian government can serve to right this wrong?
As the Nisman murder indicates, Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America has not ceased to grow, despite its fingerprints on the bombing in 1994. It has done so and continues to do so through the expansion of Iran’s efforts in the diplomatic and intelligence realms, as well as through businesses and investments. Initially, Hezbollah set foot in Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. From this base, deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up criminal enterprises to fund its terrorist operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Among the organization’s reported major industries are money laundering, counterfeiting, piracy, and drug trafficking. Hezbollah’s infiltration into Latin America was facilitated through Iran’s strengthening ties with authoritarian states such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Moreover, Iran is making further inroads in these countries through actively promoting and facilitating conversion to Islam.
Despite the above, not everything is lost. Similar to the change in the United States, where a new presidency is trying very hard to dial back the lax policies of its predecessor, and specifically when it comes to enforcing the country’s borders (see which elements can infiltrate into the US from the south), and keeping Iran at bay, so, too, certain changes have taken place in Argentina.
Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Kirchner, like Barack Obama, favored Iran. She showed extreme weakness toward Iran and kowtowed to their deceptive demands. Kirchner’s successor and political opponent, Mauricio Macri, was elected in December 2015. He has since rectified Argentina’s foreign policy. He is friendly toward the West and toward Israel, and Netanyahu is right to build a personal relationship with him as well as with other like-minded Latin American leaders. In that vein, Netanyahu’s trip to Latin America last fall was a long overdue and most appropriate visit. In fact, no Israeli prime minister before Netanyahu ever visited Latin America. Moreover, neither the Israeli government nor its parliament sent representatives to attend the official state ceremonies commemorating the mega-attacks that directly targeted the local Jewish community and the State of Israel.
As outlined above, Israel finds itself mostly alone in the family of nations. Few nations, if any, are willing and able to consistently treat Israel fairly. Israel’s friendship with many countries has often been because of, or otherwise rattled by, either pre- or post-World War II and Nazi-era-related sufferings and events. While nowadays most nations in the world appreciate Israel and the Jewish people for their resilience and innovation, it is mostly the Islamic fundamentalist countries and societies, such as Turkey, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, along with extreme liberal movements, that are unabatedly reviving vile Nazi-era comparisons to malign Israel and isolate it in the world.
The efforts of these fundamentalist groups and regimes are unfortunately effective in influencing other Western countries of weak moral character, and thereby perpetuate their unfounded hostility towards Israel.
The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is the sudden and last-minute cancelation of a friendly soccer match between Argentina and Israel, due to pressure from the BDS movement and from Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association. Rajoub personally threatened the Argentinian players with violence and death. This is so repugnant and attests to the deep-seated hatred this society has and can’t get rid of, even temporarily for a 90-minute-long sports event! Such a society deserves no attention whatsoever from, and certainly no inclusion among, the family of nations of the world.
Wouldn’t the relocation of the Argentinian embassy to Jerusalem constitute the best antidote that the Argentinian government can serve to right this wrong? It would be the strongest response it can offer to eradicate this Nazi-era venom once and for all.
Additionally, such a move will further show the world that Argentina stands with Israel and the US against Iran and its proxies, which after all is in Latin America’s own best interest.
Jacques R. Rothschild was born in Belgium and served as a unit commander in the IDF paratroopers. He graduated in Mathematics, Statistics, and International Affairs from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives currently with his family in New York City where he works as an advisor to the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kuwait. He also writes and speaks publicly about current affairs and causes for which he cares deeply.