(March 31, 2016 / JNS) Activists and lawmakers say that more needs to be done to promote a positive view of Israel in Latin America, where two archenemies of Israel—the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Iran—are gaining traction and influence.
“The reality is that Latin American support for Israel has been eroding gradually over the years,” said Leopoldo Martinez, the Latin America director of the Israel Allies Foundation, which recently sponsored the Second Annual Latin America Summit on Israel in Miami.
“Sympathy has…increased for the Palestinian cause as populations of Arab and Palestinian descent in various Latin American countries have become more nationalistic and radicalized. Growing Iranian influence in Latin America has become a major concern,” he told JNS.org, citing the situation in countries such as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
While “there is not a BDS movement in Latin America as we know it in the United States…there are small but very well-organized groups that are willing to boycott and sabotage any pro-Israel initiative that supports Israel in the region,” Martinez explained.
During the Israel Allies Foundation’s Latin America summit, held March 6, parliamentarians from 13 Latin American and Caribbean nations signed a resolution in support of Israel and against BDS. The declaration’s signatories stated their “support for the Jewish people to live in peace, safety, and security in the Land of Israel,” emphasizing that “strong relations between the Western Hemisphere and Israel are crucial to the spread of freedom, democracy, and justice around the world.” The resolution also said that the BDS movement contributes to anti-Semitic attitudes, which is “detrimental to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and must be rejected by all actors that seek peace.”
According to Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC)’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs in Washington, DC, Chile has the “largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East, and they have been very active [against Israel]…for many years,” even before BDS became an organized global movement.
“Now…they have started to piggyback on [BDS],” Siegel Vann told JNS.org.
In Venezuela, she said, “we know that the [Hugo]Chavez/[Nicolas] Maduro government has had a traditional pro-Palestinian, pro-Iran type of stance for different reasons since 2005.” She added that in many Latin American countries, “there are sectors in foreign policy that identify with the Palestinians and the Arab world, absolutely.”
A number of South American nations have in recent years formally recognized Palestinian statehood, starting with Brazil’s 2010 recognition of a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders. According to a Jerusalem Post op-ed written by the Israel Allies Foundation, only Panama, Mexico, and Colombia have not followed suit in South America.
In February 2016, the Palestinian Authority opened its first-ever embassy and diplomatic mission in the Western Hemisphere—in Brazil. At the same time, Brazil refused to accept Israel’s nominee as its ambassador to the South American nation, former Israeli settlement movement leader Dani Dayan. While the Brazilian government did not reveal its specific rationale for resisting the nomination, more than 40 Brazilian social movements had signed a petition calling on the government to reject Dayan’s appointment over “acts in clear violation of international laws and the basic rights of the Palestinian people.” One Brazilian lawmaker even likened Dayan to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
“We coordinated with [Brazilian] Congresswoman Geovania de sa Rodrigues, a member of our [Israel Allies Foundation] network and vice president of the Evangelical Friendship Group inside the Congress of Brazil, who spearheaded a letter to support Dani’s nomination,” Martinez told JNS.org.
The letter was signed by 199 members of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the country’s lower legislative house) and four member of the Federal Senate (the upper house), but the Brazilian government did not respond to it. The Israeli government ultimately re-assigned Dayan as Israel’s consul general in New York.
Giving another example of his group’s pro-Israel advocacy in Latin America, Martinez noted an Israel Allies Foundation meeting last year in the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica, a gathering attended by 20 members of that country’s parliament.
“We discussed several issues, including the necessary support for Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and their role on the frontline with the Islamic State threat to Europe and the rest of Western civilization. From this meeting, we established a Costa Rica Israel Allies Caucus comprising one-third of the parliament. The members signed a pro-Israel resolution, in which one of many points included support for their government to move back their [Israeli] embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Martinez said.
Yet two weeks after the meeting in Costa Rica, he said, “pro-Palestinian media activists went to the Legislative Assembly asking questions, pressuring the parliamentarians who signed the resolution to put them in an uncomfortable position for supporting Israel and for signing that declaration.”
Agustin Barrios Gomez, a former lawmaker in the Mexican Congress, told JNS.org in an interview facilitated by the Israel Allies Foundation that in Mexico, anti-Semitism is often associated with “the general disposition on behalf of certain political actors on the right and on the left to see the Arab-Israeli conflict through the lens of Palestinian victimization. In that narrative, people gloss over violence and terrorism, thinking that there is a viable interlocutor for Palestinian statehood.”
“My electoral district in Mexico City is home to 70 percent of all of Mexico’s Jewish population,” he said. “I would be remiss if I were not sensitive to their needs and aspirations. Further, while I think we all agree with respect to the urgency of achieving a lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am disturbed by the anti-Semitic undertones and blackmail implicit in the BDS movement.”
Gomez also believes that Latin American nations should view Israel more positively because of “the strong ties that our citizens have with both the [Jewish] Diaspora and the Israeli state,” and the “common cause that we all need to make with respect to terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism.”
“I think the [Israeli Allies Foundation] summit in Miami was instrumental in opening our eyes to the very real danger that Iran poses in pushing its agenda in our hemisphere,” said Gomez, who was a speaker at the early-March summit.
Most discussions on Iranian influence in South America include Argentina, the site of two terror attacks on Israeli and Jewish venues that killed a combined 114 people and injured hundreds more: the 1992 attack on the country’s Israeli embassy and the 1994 bombing at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Both attacks have been linked to Iran and its proxy, the Hezbollah terror group.
Shortly after the Israel Allies Foundation’s Miami summit, the World Jewish Congress held a plenary assembly in Buenos Aires, at which it adopted a resolution that “considers the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and all other attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel, to be manifestations of anti-Semitic discrimination against the only truly democratic country in the Middle East, and damaging to any genuine efforts for peace in the region.”
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, told JNS.org that “with the exception of Venezuela,” with whom Iran shares “ideological antipathy” toward the U.S., the prospect of business ties with Iran is what motivates Latin American countries to warm up to the Islamic Republic. Some of the sanctions relief Iran secured in its nuclear deal with world powers likely “flows disproportionately into the coffers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” which in turn may use some of those funds to set up terror cells in places like Latin America, according to Rubin.
But what might create positive change for Israel in this region, particularly when it comes to the views of Latin American lawmakers? The Israel Allies Foundation promotes a focus on shared Judeo-Christian values. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll revealed that nearly 90 percent of Latin Americans identify as Christians. While two-thirds of those Christians are Catholic, there is also a steady rise in the number of evangelical Christians in the region, and evangelicals are known for their strongly pro-Israel views.
“Latin American support for Israel should be instinctive” because of this “shared Judeo-Christian heritage,” said Martinez, who expressed hope that in the aftermath of the Miami summit, “if there is any attempt of the BDS movement in Latin America…[lawmakers] can recognize it very fast…[and] react in coordination to defeat it.”