Israel and South America: Strange Bedfellows or Great New Besties?

Why you should care

Because their friendship could reshape geopolitics for decades to come. 

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Two years ago, when Paraguay’s then president, Horacio Cartes, arrived at a breakfast meeting with the Israel Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem, he couldn’t help but geek out. “Don’t thank me. Don’t welcome me. I feel at home,” Cartes said. “Israel is in the heart of my country. I received many messages from Paraguayans saying, ‘You are blessed. You are in Israel.’”

The statement may appear odd from a leader whose country has only around 1,000 Jewish residents. But despite a past of harboring Hitler lovers, and being home to the first Nazi party outside Germany, Paraguay sees much of itself in Israel. After all, the tiny landlocked nation suffered its own “holocaust,” going by the literal term, when a brutal war in the 19th century led to the death of an estimated nine-tenths of its adult male population. And it isn’t the only South American country that’s feeling love for Israel. In December, Guatemala and Honduras were two of just eight countries to vote against a U.N. condemnation resolution that shamed the U.S. for plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Guatemala has announced plans to follow America’s move to Jerusalem, while Honduras and Paraguay seem likely to follow suit.

The affection isn’t coincidental — Israel has been cultivating it carefully. In September, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit South and Central America, making stops in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico during a 10-day diplomatic trip that he said “marks a new era in relations between Israel and Latin America.”

The more Israel is isolated internationally, the more it seeks: ‘Where are its allies?’ … Perhaps the allies in South America can supply that demand.

Chaim Noy, Ashkelon Academic College professor, Israel

“There’s no doubt” that the trip signified a shift in the region’s relationship with Israel, says Eli Hazan, the foreign affairs director of the ruling Likud Party. It was a statement that those countries “were willing to have their relationship made public,” adds Emmanuel Navon, a French-born Israeli political scientist at Tel-Aviv University.

Israel and South America would seem like strange bedfellows, separated by hemispheres and oceans apart. Indeed, the relationship was, until recently, on the rocks. Paraguay actually closed its Israeli embassy in 2005 due to (perhaps dubious) budgetary constraints. “It has been a very bad relationship until lately,” Hazan admits.

The embassy reopened a decade later, however, and Israel has since developed economic and cultural ties with multiple South American countries, importing some oil from them while exporting agriculture and technological goods. More than the financial gains to be had though, the disparate regions are united by a common worry: the rising influence of Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon but with tendrils across the globe.

When Netanyahu landed in Argentina, home to the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, he laid a wreath at the site of the Israeli embassy — destroyed in a 1992 blast that killed 29 people, including four Israelis. In October 2006, it was revealed that Iran had ordered the bombing carried out by Hezbollah, and in 2015, a special prosecutor accused the sitting Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, of covering up Iran’s role in the bombing. Her successor, Mauricio Macri, has worked with Israel to develop counterterrorism tech and weapons. “Many of those countries, since the ’70s, are major vestibules of military equipment from Israel,” Navon says. Now many of them need counterintelligence expertise. And Israel is happy to provide it.

There are benefits to South American countries supporting Israel that have nothing to do with Netanyahu’s influence. The choice to back the American decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem comes at a time when many countries consider it important to garner favor with Donald Trump, whose presidency has called into question trade with — and foreign aid to — nations like Guatemala and Honduras. By solidifying themselves as friends of not just Israel but also America during a time of heavy criticism, those nations helped close the diplomatic rift opened up by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Their actions didn’t go unnoticed by the United States, which, through U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, invited all countries that didn’t support the condemnation to a “friendship party” soon after the vote.

To be clear, not all of South America is behind Israel: Venezuela is a contemporary ally of Iran, and Bolivian President Evo Morales criticized Guatemala for its U.N. vote, saying it had “sold its dignity to the empire to not lose the crumbs from USAID.”

Still, many other Latin American countries are cozying up to Israel, and the reasons go beyond Trump and America. It starts with religious ties. “There are a lot of Christians and evangelicals in South and Central America,” Hazan says, and they feel tied to the Jewish cause, which in turn ties their leaders. Also, about a “third to a quarter” of Israeli backpackers visit South America after their mandatory military service, a relationship built over decades of visiting Jewish relatives in those countries as part of their post-military “rite of passage,” as Chaim Noy, a tourism studies professor at Ashkelon Academic College in Israel, puts it. Netanyahu himself nodded to this, calling his trip to South America his own “post-army trek.”

Israel suffered a dip in support from the international community in the ’70s, and could be facing a similar dip today. Netanyahu likes to brag that Israel is in the midst of unprecedented diplomacy (he visited seven continents and countries from Australia and China to Eastern Europe last year, and India in January). But a study by the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies looked into the voting patterns of 35 nations from 2009 to 2017 on Israel-related votes and found that Israel continually finds itself isolated on key votes, finding support almost solely from the U.S., Canada and a few island countries beholden to America. The EU remains a critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people.

At a time when Israel and Bibi himself are struggling to maintain their control, perhaps their bear hug with South America is an attempt to find allies where they can, suggests Noy. “The more Israel is isolated internationally, the more it seeks: ‘Where are its allies? Where are its coalitions?’” he says. “And perhaps the allies in South America can supply that demand.”

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