On Sept. 11, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America when he began a multi-day visit to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. This historic visit underscores the growing importance that Israel places on the region. In turn, many Latin American countries increasingly view Israel as an important trade, technology, security and development partner.
Israel-Argentina relations have been complex and far too often marked by tragedy. In 1992, Hezbollah terrorists—on Iran’s orders—bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242. In 1994, Hezbollah attacked the Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital with even more devastating results: 85 people were killed and more than 300 injured.
Previous Argentine governments stymied investigations into these horrific crimes. Marred by allegations of corruption, the government of former Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner cynically signed a 2013 agreement with Iran to investigate the attacks by establishing a Tehran-based joint commission. And in 2015, Alberto Nisman—the prosecutor probing the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center—was found dead in his apartment hours before he was set to testify in Argentina’s Congress that Fernandez sought to trade Iranian oil in return for minimizing Iran’s role in the attack. His death was at first ruled a suicide, though the case was reopened last year due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the incident.
Following his November 2015 election, President Mauricio Macri has altered Argentina’s approach. During his first month in office, he definitively abandoned the 2013 agreement. In October 2016, Argentina renewed extradition calls for former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the suspected mastermind of the attacks. And in March 2017, Macri held a historic meeting with Israeli survivors and relatives of victims of the 1992 Israeli embassy attack. Previous presidents had only met with families of Argentinian victims.
“[Macri] strengthened Argentina’s position compared with what it was before. I honor his commitment and the integrity of his effort to determine what happened,” Netanyahu said during his visit this week.
Deepening relations with Israel has been of priority for Macri even before he became president. In fact, during his tenure as mayor of Buenos Aires, the city used Israel as its model for expanding entrepreneurial ecosystems and won the March 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Congress’s Cities Challenge. "We envision our city as being the center of innovation and creativity, as well as a benchmark for Latin America and the world—and working closely with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem is critical in this path," said Macri.
Netanyahu and Macri met on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in January 2016 and reaffirmed the importance of growing the Israel-Argentina relationship. “Macri told me unequivocally: ‘We are starting a new slate with Israel. Our interests and values make this partnership necessary and therefore we are beginning a new era,’” said Netanyahu following the meeting.
Following their bilateral meetings this week, Netanyahu and Macri announced the signing of several agreements, including on public security, customs duties, cooperation in social insurance, as well as a declaration regarding pre-World War II archival documents that will foster a deeper understanding of the Holocaust.
“We are strong democracies, we are committed to seizing the future for our people, to give them a life of purpose, a life of progress, a life of realizing the potential that every one of our citizens has, and for this we have to realize that today the future belongs to those who innovate,” said Netanyahu. “Israel is an innovation nation, some say it's the innovation nation, and we're eager to share with Argentina the vast opportunities that come from innovation.”
Colombia places a high priority on becoming a technological leader in Latin America. To this end, Bogota is not only heavily investing in professional training programs and providing tax incentives, it is also looking to cultivate relationships with other tech giants, including Israel. In 2015, Israel and Colombia signed a R&D cooperation agreement to enable firms from both countries to receive funding for joint ventures. “This agreement will encourage Israeli industry to focus on several technological fields with the Colombian industry. The potential for cooperation is significant and through the agreement, Israeli companies can gain exposure to Colombian firms and to new potential avenues of cooperation,” said Avi Hasson, the former chief scientist at the Israeli Ministry of Economy.
“Your country, Israel, is a world leader in terms of innovation,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told Netanyahu during their Sept. 13 meeting. “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.”
Security is one important aspect of Colombia-Israel cooperation. Prior to the 2016 ceasefire that ended a more than 50-year conflict between the Colombian government and FARC—a Marxist guerilla group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization—Israel reportedly provided Bogota with military training, advice and arms. Colombia—which has the second highest number of landmines after Afghanistan—now faces the difficult task of clearing its territory of landmines. As a result, a Colombian delegation traveled to Israel last year to seek expertise from the Israeli Defense Ministry’s National Mine Action Authority on ways to mitigate the threat from these deadly explosive devices.
“Israel has been a friend and ally of Colombia and lately it has been a great ally in the construction of peace in our country,” Santos told Netanyahu. “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.”
MASHAV—Israel’s international aid organization–also considers Colombia a priority country in Latin America. To this end, the Israeli development agency brought a contingent of Colombian school principals and teachers to Israel earlier this year to take part in a specialized program that provides strategies to strengthen schools back home.
Israel and Mexico are important trading partners that seek to deepen their relationship. In 2000, the two countries signed a free trade agreement (FTA). Already, bilateral trade totaled $700 million in 2015—a 300 percent increase since the FTA’s implementation.
“[Mexico is] 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,” said Netanyahu following his Sept. 14 meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
“We have agreed to establish and begin the...negotiations to look over this [free trade] agreement so that the commercial relationship between both nations intensifies and grows,” said Nieto.
Recently, water security has emerged as an area of increased cooperation. Israeli innovation in this sector has effectively made Israel water-secure despite its dry desert climate, and Mexico is interested in these technologies to better utilize and expand its own water resources.
In 2013, Israel’s national water carrier Mekorot and CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water commission, signed an agreement to protect and improve the quality of groundwater in Mexico. In 2014, the two countries also signed an accord to advance joint research-and-development projects, particularly in areas such as water management and desert agriculture. "We are delighted with Mexico’s vote of confidence in Israel’s economy, industry, and innovation, which have long been global brands," said Hasson.
Last month, Mexican petrochemical company Mexichem bought Israel’s iconic drip irrigation manufacturer Netafim for $1.5 billion—Mexichem will have an 80 percent stake in the company, while Kibbutz Hatzerim, Netafim’s founder, will retain a 20 percent stake.
Mexichem also committed to maintain manufacturing of the innovative water technology in Israel at its present level for 20 years. “Netafim positions us to become a leading developer of solutions to address food and water shortages, and respond to the need to increase crop yields and meet higher sustainability standards for fertilization,” said Mexichem CEO Antonio Carrillo Rule.
Israeli-Latin American Relations Benefit All Parties
As Latin American countries face a variety of challenges, they are increasingly turning to Israel for help. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s historic visit illustrates that while the Israel-Latin America relationship spans decades, Israeli innovation and expertise in areas like trade, technology, and security, as well as development assistance offer important ways to deepen these ties. In turn, Israel benefits from engaging from these trade ties and the opportunity to build close political and economic relations with these fellow democracies.
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