Today Benjamin Netanyahu concludes his stay in Argentina and flies to Colombia as part of the first-ever official visit by an Israeli prime minister to Latin America. Emmanuel Navon recounts the many ups and downs of the Jewish state’s relations with the region, and explains why improving these relations is important:
While most Latin American countries voted in favor of partition at the UN in 1947, their voting patterns at the General Assembly became unfavorable to Israel from the 1960s onward. In 1964, a voting bloc 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. . . . [However], Latin America became the last bastion of Israel’s presence in the Third World after 1973: Israel was isolated from Africa, and it had no diplomatic relations with China and India. . . .
Except for Nicaragua after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, all Central American countries, as well as Argentina, bought weapons from Israel. This was a win-win relationship since Latin America needed Israel’s weapons as much as Israel needed Latin America’s oil (especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution). Communist guerrillas [trying to overthrow these regimes] also happened to have close ties with the PLO and with anti-Western Arab leaders. The Sandinistas [who eventually seized power] in Nicaragua, for example, had been cooperating with the PLO since 1969, and they enjoyed the military and financial support of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
In recent years, relations between Israel and Latin America have been overshadowed by the influence of Iran and Hizballah. On July 18, 1994, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 people. It was revealed in October 2006 that Iran had ordered the bombing and that Hizballah had carried it out. . . . Hizballah’s presence in Latin America has since then been growing through the expansion of Iran’s diplomatic and intelligence missions, businesses, and investments. . . .
Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Kirchner, had developed strong ties with Iran. Her successor and political opponent, Mauricio Macri (elected in December 2015), has rectified Argentina’s foreign policy. He is well-disposed 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. The prime minister’s trip to Latin America is timely, and his diplomatic initiative praiseworthy.