Away from convention: Latin America’s response to Israel

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The anecdote goes that, when discussing how to deal with the millions of Jews displaced by anti-Semitic skirmishes across Europe, it was Argentina which was favoured by many prominent Zionists. In 1948, however, they were tipped to the post by then Palestine establishing the first Jewish state since the Biblical era.

The plan was, however, a hoax; a Protocol of the Elders of Zion for the New World. Concocted in a reaction to mass Jewish migration to the country in the 19th Century, the right-wing conspiracy adapted to suit new audiences, reappearing most prominently in the 1970s when Peronists, neo-Nazis and portions of the mainstream press claimed that Israel had plans to invade Patagonia to create a sister state for the homeland.

Today Latin America remains a relatively safe place to live. Despite a reputation for harbouring Nazis in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was Jewish migration to the region which more noticeably defined the post-war region. Today the lights of apartment blocks in Buenos Aires will present silhouettes of families gathered for Shabbat and the backpacker trail is littered with signs in Hebrew welcoming the legion of Israeli travellers celebrating after two years of military service.

Yet it is Latin America which, in recent years, that has become the most unified bloc in condemning Israel’s various interventions into Gaza and the West Bank. Tomorrow, Mercosur – the trade bloc consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela – is set to release its strongest condemnation to date. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet has already expressed her “condemnation and regret” for the loss of lives, pausing Free Trade talks in the process.

The voices of Latin American countries have not been left muted within the broader international outrage of Israel’s “disproportional response” to Gaza’s Hamas government. In a bizarre reaction to Brazil’s criticism, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called the world’s fifth largest economy a “diplomatic dwarf” before saying on Brazilian television:

“This is not football. In football, when a game ends in a draw, you think it is proportional, but when it finishes 7-1 it’s disproportionate. Sorry to say, but not so in real life and under international law.”

Brazil’s reaction: the withdrawal of their Ambassador from Tel Aviv becoming the second country in the world to do so after left-wing Ecuador. Within days, countries considered conservative within Latin America – Chile and Peru – had also withdrawn their ambassadors.

Strong diplomatic positions are expected from the likes of Cuba, who have had no engagement with Israel since the 1970s, and the Bolivarian Alliance (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela etc.), whose provocative discussions with Iran have left relations with Israel sour, but from the regions more balanced forces it beckons the question: does it matter and what are the long-lasting effects?

In a blunt Miami Herald opinion piece, Latin America editor Andres Oppenheimer stated that Brazil’s communique puts the country “in the league with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries that automatically side with military dictatorships and human rights abusers across the world.” By practically endorsing Hamas, which reading into the ‘moderates’ press releases seems like a fair accusation, they are showing diplomatic immaturity (even if the position might well be morally founded). Put more cynically, the regional powerhouses of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are not abiding by internationally accepted diplomatic norms and are therefore not part of the bloc they would one day like to join.

Secondly, as Europe’s ongoing debate with Russia suggests, with deep economic roots underlining Chile and Brazil’s relationship with Israel, words might well be redundant in the long term. In the last 15 years, Brazil has bought weapons and fighter planes worth billions and both countries are keen to expand existing economic agreements.

Ultimately though the sheer difference in economies, as well as the geographical barrier, means that neither side risks much from engaging in a war of words. Strong reactions may breach established conventions of diplomacy, but the viewpoints are hardly controversial with many politicians in the west coming out against Israel in public and in private.

With few of todays ‘big’ international stories occurring within Latin America’s proximity or sphere of influence, it is intriguing to see how governments react to issues which raise difficult moral and political dilemmas; if the ‘moderates’ are anything to go by, their approach is not in line with what its allies to the north might expect.

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