Américas / March-April 1999
By Larry Luxner
On Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to partition the disputed territory of Palestine into one Arab and one Jewish state, Jews around the world saw the historic vote as confirmation of world support for a Jewish homeland and the establishment of the State of Israel less than six months later, on May 14, 1948.
But the controversial vote -- which was opposed by all Arab countries -- couldn't have happened without the backing of Latin America, says Israeli diplomat Herzl Inbar.
"Of the 33 votes in favor of partition, 13 came from Latin countries," recalled Inbar, deputy director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Inbar, who's based in Jerusalem, was in the United States recently to mark the 50th anniversary of Israeli independence. During his visit, he gave a talk at the Washington headquarters of B'nai B'rith International on the subject of Israel's ties with Latin America.
"Jewish leaders, even before the vote, succeeded in getting the support of the region's intellectual elite, particularly those against imperialism. Most of them were familiar with the struggle of the Jewish people," said the 60-year-old diplomat. "We had the support of almost everyone who counted. To this day, there's a second and third generation of thinkers connected to Jewish issues, from Argentina's Borges and Ernesto Sabato to Venezuela's Eloy Blanco."
In 1951, Israel appointed Ya'acov Tsur as its first ambassador to Argentina -- in fact, its first to any Latin country. Tsur arrived in Buenos Aires by steamship via Montevideo, learning Spanish fluently within a few months. After completing his term in Argentina, Tsur returned to Israel and founded the Institute of Israeli-Latin American Friendship, among other things.
That marked the beginning of a period in which Israel -- boycotted by the Arab world -- began offering developing countries from Antigua to Zimbabwe its expertise in agriculture, particularly drip-irrigation technology, in return for sympathetic votes in the UN General Assembly.
"In the early 1960s, Israel started cooperation projects with Latin America, mainly in agriculture," he said. "About 26,000 Latin students have since attended courses in Israel. I think there is no other country outside the region which can make that claim."
Inbar himself was born in Poland in 1938, a year before the outbreak of World War II. He spent his early years in both Argentina and Israel, and joined the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1964. Two years later, he served as secretary and translator to President Zalman Shazar during his historic visit to Latin America and OAS headquarters. In 1972, Inbar organized the first Latin American Congress for Jews in Arab Countries, held in Caracas, and served in various capacities over the next two decades at Israeli embassies in Chile, Argentina and Venezuela before assuming his current post three years ago.
"Today, we have embassies in every Latin American country except Cuba, and a greater diplomatic presence in the region than even some European nations," he said, noting that Israel enjoys permanent observer status in both the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Even in Cuba, which broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1974 under pressure from the Arab world, Israeli entrepreneurs are present in agribusiness, real-estate and tourism ventures. One Israeli company, Grupo BM, has spent at least $20 million rehabili-tating the Jagüey Grande citrus groves and marketing Cuban oranges in Western Europe.
Interestingly, only two countries in the world -- Costa Rica and El Salvador -- have recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital by locating their embassies in the holy city. All other countries that maintain diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, including the United States -- Israel's chief ally -- have their embassies in Tel Aviv.
In Israel itself live thousands of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Jewish immigrants from Latin America; in some settlements, such as Kibbutz Ga'ash, they actually form the majority. Likewise, half a dozen salsa clubs line Ha-Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, filled on Saturday nights with young Israelis who backpacked around South America after finishing army service and brought back a love of Latin music.
Israel's close ties also extend to Brazil, which next year  will mark the 500th anniversary of its colonization by Portugal. "Brazil asked 12 countries to participate in the celebrations, Israel among them," said Inbar. "Why? Because they say the Jews were influential in shaping Brazilian history, and that Israel represents the Jews."
Not all aspects of Israel's relations with Latin America are so positive, of course. One reason so many young Jews moved to Israel was the pervasive anti-Semitism prevalent in countries like Argentina -- where, says Inbar, "the Catholic church was among the most conservative and reactionary in the world."
Argentina -- which has an estimated 300,000 Jews, the most of any country in Latin America -- is also the site of two of the world's deadliest terrorist acts against Jews since World War II: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and injured 252, and the 1994 destruction of the AMIA Jewish social welfare building -- also in Buenos Aires -- in which 86 died and 240 were injured.
"This was a turning point, unfortunately, as far as Jewish life in South America. It was no longer a question of just fearing an attack, because it actually happened," said Inbar. "We are constantly demanding to proceed with the investigation. But the truth is, nobody has any clue whatsoever who was responsible. Those who know Argentina, as I do, assume it was a combination between outside forces, probably Iran, and locals -- hired guns or anti-Semites -- taking vengeance on the Jewish community."
Despite the two attacks and Argentina's failure to prosecute the culprits, he says, "bilateral relations are at their highest level ever." Argentine President Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian Muslim ancestry, has visited Israel several times, as have both major candidates in Argentina's presidential elections later this year.
"In Brazil, there are five to eight million Arabs, most of them from Lebanon, about 500,000 Arabs in Venezuela, and a huge Palestinian community in Honduras. Yet in Latin America," said Inbar, "being Arab does not necessarily mean being against Israel."
One example is Jamil Mahuad, the new president of Ecuador. Mahuad, who is of Lebanese origin, recently announced his government would spend $60 million to purchase two Israeli Kfir fighter jets and refurbish another eight Kfirs. Israel Aircraft Industries had sold Ecuador 24 Kfirs in the 1980s, but Ecuador lost two of them in crashes.
Quito had long wanted to replace the downed jets, but Israel couldn't close the deal without U.S. consent because the airplanes are equipped with General Electric engines. The Pentagon recently dropped its objection to the deal following the signing of a peace treaty between Ecuador and Peru.
"Israel has a huge arms industry, and we have military sales of equipment to Latin American countries, Ecuador among them," said Inbar. "We have a surplus of weapons that is quickly becoming obsolete. We recognize this is a sensitive issue, and we are trying our best not to transgress certain principles of international diplomacy."
In fact, one of the most controversial aspects of Israel's relations with Latin America -- even among Israel's supporters -- has been its historic military cooperation with right-wing dictators ranging from Chile's Augusto Pinochet to Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza. "We did sell arms to Somoza, but when we saw that it could influence events, we stopped selling arms," Inbar said without elaborating.
Far less controversial is the generous assistance Israel has provided Central America in the wake of devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch.
In an operation coordinated by the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Co-operation, nine Spanish-speaking Israeli doctors and a nurse were dispatched to Honduras and Nicaragua in mid-November. For two weeks, the team visited hurricane victims in affected areas, treating an average of 150 people a day for trauma and infectious diseases.
The doctors were accompanied by a consignment of antibiotics, infusions, first-aid kits, painkillers and other emergency supplies. In addition, an Israeli company, Isra-Medicom, donated a ton and a half of medical supplies. The transfer of equipment to local authorities and the deployment of medical teams on the ground was coordinated by the Israeli Embassy in Guatemala.
The Israeli government intends to send additional experts to Central America, in order to restore agriculture damaged by storm-related flooding, and thereby help rescue the region's struggling economies.
"Our main effort is aimed not only at strengthening cultural and social ties with Latin America, which are strong, but also economic relations," says Inbar. "Business with Latin America is not a substantial part of Israel's overall trade."
On an annual basis, Israel exports around $22 billion in goods and services; Latin America and the Caribbean represent only $1.2 billion of that total.
In order to boost business ties, Israel is currently negotiating to sign a free-trade agreement with Mexico -- making it the first country outside the Western Hemisphere to do so. Inbar says Israel is pursuing similar talks with full and associate members of the Mercosur trade bloc: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
To that end, Israel plans to promote its expertise in the fields of agribusiness, informatics, telecommunications and medical equipment via a two-day seminar in Monte-video during the last week of March. Inbar says the event -- which came out of a recent meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Uruguayan President Julio María Sanguinetti -- "is to raise the awareness of Mercosur countries regarding Israeli know-how in the high-tech field."
In early January, Israeli Trade Minister Natan Sharansky and his Argentine counterpart, Alieto Guadagni, signed an accord in Jerusalem to promote bilateral trade and economic cooperation. In 1997, two-way trade totaled $200 million, with Argentina exporting mostly agricultural and food products to Israel, and importing Israeli machinery, chemicals and plastics.
Asked about the likelihood of his nation resuming diplomatic ties with Havana -- the one Latin American capital still lacking an Israeli embassy -- Inbar seemed pessimistic.
"During the last few years, Castro has been trying to get closer to Israel, for reasons you certainly understand," he said, in reference to Israel's close ties with Washington. "But I don't foresee any change in the immediate future in our lack of relations with Cuba."