Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israeli PM in Mexico and Colombia

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Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made history as the first Israeli PM to visit Latin America. My earlier blog post looked at Netanyahu's historic visit to Argentina - this one reviews the Israeli PM's subsequent travels to Colombia and Mexico where friendships were reinforced and strengthened.

On September 13 Netanyahu arrived in Colombia for a three-hour visit to discuss ways Israel can assist Colombia rebuild after a 52-year civil war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Last year the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace agreement that ended the brutal conflict, which has killed some 225,000 Colombians and displaced around 8 million.

This year marks 60 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Colombia, which began in 1957. The Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thanked Israel for promoting peace in his country, and noted Israel's efforts to help clear landmines in Colombia. President Santos said:

"Your country has been a friend and ally of Colombia, and recently a great ally in the construction of peace in the country... We would like to strengthen this magnificent relationship." President Santos added, "You have offered help to us in several areas, including, for example, something that is very humanitarian, which is the removal of anti-personnel mines."

Colombia is estimated to have the second highest number of landmines in the world after Afghanistan. According to UN figures, between 1990 and 2015, more than 11,400 people were killed or injured in Colombia by mines or unexploded ordnance. Even in 2016 Colombia registered 89 casualties, plus 18 during the first half of 2017.

Last year Israel's National Mine Action Authority, which operates under the Defence Ministry, hosted eight Colombians for a week-long workshop on mine-clearing procedures.

President Santos and Prime Minister Netanyahu also discussed opportunities for cooperation in other areas for post-conflict Colombia including on agriculture, water management and cybsersecurity. The two leaders also signed a tourism cooperation agreement and announced the relaunch of the Colombia-Israel Innovation Fund. President Santos praised Israeli technology saying:

"Your country, Israel, is a world leader in terms of innovation... We like to say that Colombians are born innovators. But if we learn from you how to channel this innovation into progress, then we will be able to do it much better."

In 2013, Israel and Colombia signed a free trade agreement that is still awaiting ratification by Colombia's parliament. President Santos said he believed it would go into effect within "the next few months." In 2016, bilateral trade between Israel and Colombia was at US$580 million and around 100 Israeli companies operate in Colombia.

After visiting Colombia, the Israeli PM's next stop was Mexico. At a joint appearance with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Netanyahu asked for a "pardon" for being the first Israeli PM to visit Mexico, despite Israel and Mexico having had diplomatic relations for 65 years.  Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

"We think we correct now a historic lapse, because Mexico is a great country. It's one of the world's great economies. It's great nation, a great people, a great culture. We want to be close, even closer, to Mexico. And this is what this meeting signifies."

Netanyahu also expressed condolences to Mexico for those who lost their lives in the recent 8.1 magnitude earthquake that killed at least 65 people, and offered Israeli assistance. He said: "We have, as you said, offered any help that we can give to Oaxaca and Chiapas and anything that you deem appropriate, we stand ready, because we stand with you."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has said that it would provide aid for the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, which were hardest hit in the quake. Nieto thanked Israel for the help and praised the "sound relationship" between Mexico and Israel.

Unmentioned in the public speeches was the controversy in January caused when in a tweet Netanyahu backed US President Donald Trumps' plan to build a border wall between Mexico and the US. At the time the Mexican political leadership demanded an apology and summoned Israel's ambassador. Netanyahu has called the incident a "passing disagreement or misunderstanding", insisting that the tweet was a reference to the success of Israel's security fence and not a comment about US-Mexico relations.

Instead the discussion between the leaders was focused on increasing bilateral trade and deepening cooperation in a range of areas. Officials from both countries signed a series of bilateral agreements including a memorandum of understanding on space research and agreements on aviation, communications and development.

While in Mexico, Netanyahu met with 16 heads of Mexico's leading businesses encouraging them to invest in Israel. At a "power breakfast," Netanyahu told the business leaders about Israel's hi-tech success including cybersecurity and automotive technology. The Israeli PM also addressed a Mexican-Israeli business forum for 150 Israeli and Mexican businessmen. Around 150 Israeli firms are currently operating in Mexico, and Israel is seeking to increase that number and to encourage additional investment in Israel.

Netanyahu's four-day trip to Latin America appears to have been a notable success. That no previous Israeli Prime Minister had visited Latin America appears to have been a significant oversight - one that has now been corrected. In a short time, Netanyahu was able revive old friendships and make significant steps toward expanding bilateral trade. Netanyahu was also able to showcase Israeli expertise in technology and security, opening up opportunities between states and business communities that are in the mutual interest of both Israel and its growing number of Latin American friends.

Sharyn Mittelman


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