Israel Is Strengthening Ties with Several Latin American States, But Will This Impact the Way These Countries Vote at the UN?

There are reasons to be optimistic about the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and several Latin American states. Changes in the leadership of several countries, as well as a more proactive Israeli policy towards the region, are proving quite promising. On the other hand, it seems that there is still a long way to go when it comes to translating these good relations into changes in the voting patterns of some of these countries at the United Nations on resolutions involving Israel.

Let’s start with Paraguay. From the moment, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes took office in August of 2013; the relations with Israel (which had already improved during the interim government of President Franco) got a strong boost. The Paraguayan government started to distinguish itself from other voices in the region and took a principled stance every time Israeli actions were judged by other nations. During the latest Gaza war, for example, there was an attempt at a meeting of Mercosur (the economic bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) to issue a joint communiqué strongly condemning Israeli actions. Paraguay opposed this measure. And it took similar positions in support of Israel in different international forums. Today, Paraguay abstains on almost all anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.

An important step taken by Israel to strengthen the bilateral relations with Paraguay was the decision to re-open the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion (which was closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons). This was very well received in Asuncion by both the Paraguayan government and the local Jewish community.

Three key anti-Israel resolutions were put to a vote at the General Assembly a few days ago. These are the resolutions that renew, year after year, the mandates and the funding authorizations for the following entities: 1. the Palestinian Rights Division; 2. the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and 3. the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People. These resolutions are very important because they maintain a powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that functions under U.N. auspices.

Paraguay kept its abstentions on these three anti-Israel resolutions this year. Even though these abstentions are highly appreciated, it would be desirable for Paraguay to go a step further and cast “no” votes, as abstentions unfortunately do not prevent resolutions from being approved at the General Assembly. Time will tell if Paraguay will be ready to make that positive move, in light of the increasingly close relations between this South American nation and Israel.

Israel’s relations with Peru have also improved in recent years. But Peru’s recent role at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was a cause for concern. The Peruvian representative actively supported a draft resolution (when the Committee met in Istanbul last July) that was quite insulting to Jews,  referring to the most sacred places for Judaism only by their Muslim names (it was, of course, insulting to Christians as well). The draft resolution could not be put to a vote because of the attempted coup in Turkey but when it came up again in October, Peru abstained, which clearly showed that the ambassador received instructions in this regard from the new government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who took office in late July. The outlook of the new president, a brilliant economist who spent many years in the United States, and who has Jewish roots, bears well for the progress of the bilateral relations between Israel and Peru.

Peru has abstained on these anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly for many years now, and it kept these abstentions this year. As in the case of Paraguay though, it would be desirable for Peru to start voting “no.”

The arrival of Mauricio Macri to the presidency of Argentina in December of 2015, which put an end to the 12 years of “Kirchnerismo,” opened a window of opportunity for improving this country’s bilateral relations with Israel. And the positive signs are many. One of the first things President Macri did when taking office was to nullify the shameful “pact” that the previous government had signed with Iran to “jointly investigate” the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish Center (the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by Argentina or any other Latin American country). The president also promised to guarantee the independence of the judiciary so that the mysterious death of AMIA case Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, and the complaint that he had made against the government, are properly investigated.

Last April, the Executive Board of UNESCO approved a very troublesome anti-Israel and anti-Jewish resolution. The Argentine representative supported it but, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary last October, Argentina abstained. With regard to the three key General Assembly resolutions, since 2004, Argentina voted “for” two of these resolutions and “abstains” on one. Unfortunately, there were no changes this year in this regard.

Since Brazilian President Michel Temer took office last August, the country’s sometimes shaky relations with Israel appear to have entered a new phase. His Foreign Minister Jose Serra is close to the local Jewish community, and the government seems to be determined to get Brazil’s foreign policy a new turn. We still need to see if this will indeed happen, as Brazil’s powerful Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) has proved over the years to be quite resistant to change. But there has been already a positive sign when it comes to Israel. Even though Brazil supported the troublesome resolution approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board last October, the Ministry issued a communiqué stating that unless the text is revised, Brazil will not support a similar resolution in the future. A small but positive step in the right direction. Brazil, however, supports, year after year, the three important General Assembly anti-Israel resolutions and, unfortunately, there were no changes this year.

Something very interesting happened in Mexico, a country that for many years has consistently voted against Israel at the United Nations and other international forums. President Enrique Peña Nieto traveled to Israel recently and promised that Mexico would not support the biased UNESCO resolution that was going to be put to a vote in October. His decision, however, was never transmitted by the career diplomats in the Foreign Ministry to Mexico’s new UNESCO representative, who happened to be Jewish. He cast a “yes” vote but not without protest. The local Jewish community then made its voice heard and Mexico (after trying unsuccessfully to modify its vote) decided to abstain in the plenary.

In addition, at the General Assembly, Mexico moved from “yes” to “abstain” on one of the three important resolutions, which is a pretty significant step.

Since President Tabaré Vasquez returned to Uruguay’s presidential office in March of 2015, that country’s relations with Israel made a turn for the better. Even though Vasquez belongs to the left-wing Frente Amplio party (the same party of former President Jose Mujica), he is a far more centrist leader and has interesting personal ties to Israel, as he had the opportunity to do post-doctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot several years ago.

With regard to Uruguay’s votes at the General Assembly, like Argentina, Uruguay votes for two of the resolutions and abstains on one. There were unfortunately no changes this year.

Guatemala has given us a pleasant surprise this year. After a recent visit that President Jimmy Morales paid to Israel, during which the Israeli government pledged to support Guatemala on a number of areas, the Guatemalan U.N. representative cast a “no” vote on the three key anti-Israel resolutions, something that has no precedents in Latin America. This is a very important development and a strong sign of friendship between the two countries.

The bilateral relations between Israel and Honduras have improved considerably in the last few years. And this change has been reflected in the way Honduras votes at the U.N. This year, even though Honduras has kept its abstentions on two of the three important anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly, it cast a “no” vote on one of them, which is quite important.

Colombia continues to have excellent relations with Israel, even though President Santos does not have the same kind of personal ties that Former President Uribe had both with the Jewish community and Israel. Colombia has abstained on the three key anti-Israel resolutions at the UN for a number of years now and there were no changes this year.

Panama was, until now, the only Latin American country that voted “no” on one of the three key anti-Israel resolutions (the Special Committee to Investigate Human Rights Practices). This was a decision made by Former President Martinelli, who had excellent ties with Israel and the Jewish community. This year, Panama’s U.N. representative cast a “yes” vote when this resolution was put to a vote at the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee. A pretty dramatic change as it is unusual for countries to move from “no” to “yes.” The local Jewish community reached out to President Carlos Varela and this is probably why, when the resolution was taken up by the plenary, Panama abstained. Still, this move from “no” to “abstain” represents an important setback in the bilateral relations between Panama and Israel.

The current political environment is certainly favorable for the relations between Israel and Latin America to grow. And there is a lot that Israel can contribute to the countries of the region in the fields of agriculture, technology, security, science, education, etc. But Israel must ensure that the improvement of its ties with several Latin American states has a certain impact in the way these countries vote at the U.N., especially when it comes to resolutions that makes it possible for a powerful and strongly biased anti-Israel propaganda apparatus to operate under the U.N. roof.

This post was originally published on the B’nai B’rith website.

About the Author
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
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