Latin America in Israel’s Crosshairs

By Jamal Juma’

Does South American politics move forward in constructing a new continental and global order based on democracy, human rights and mutual solidarity or will it fall pray to Israeli strategies that undermine the emancipation of Latin America and the Global South?

The Israeli minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, has wrapped up a 10-day tour through South America, the first of its kind for over two decades. His trip was aimed at launching a new direction for Israeli foreign policy, which is to turn more and more to the subcontinent. The people of Brazil and Argentina have met him with loud street protest, denouncing him as an emblem of Israeli racism, fascism and colonialism. People have refused to play the quiet host to members of a regime that for over sixty years has kept Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, oppressing the remaining population and developing ever more extreme forms of repression and apartheid. The brutal massacre and siege in Gaza at the beginning of this year, and the ongoing construction of the Wall and settlements are but two of the issues which are adding to the gradual perception of Israel as a pariah state by ordinary people across the world. However, the conflicting interests between South America and Israel go beyond solidarity with Palestine. Israel’s new South America policy forces the continent to make fundamental choices regarding its own aspirations and geopolitical alignments.

Israel’s recently strengthened interest in the region is partially motivated by the tightening avenues in Europe and North America, its traditional allies. Politically, even a conservative prime minister such as the French Sarkozy has advised the Israeli government to dismiss Lieberman in favor of a more presentable figure. At an economic level, 21 % of Israeli exporters have announced losses due to European boycotts. To offset this, Israel has recently developed much more vital and strategic interests in South America as well as Africa than in the past.

Until recently, Israel’s support for neo-liberalism and US intervention on the continent has been mainly aimed at ingratiating the Zionist regime with the US administration, on whose political and financial backing they depend. This allowed Israel to limit the influence of the Latin American liberation movements, who retained a strong attachment to the Palestinian struggle. For Israel, a colonial state built on the expulsion and ongoing repression of the indigenous population, the rise of anti-colonial and emancipatory forces anywhere of the world constitutes a potential threat to the very paradigm it is built on. 

During decades of US military intervention and backing to fascist governments and dictatorships throughout the continent, Israel was there to help training paramilitary and the death squads of the dictatorships. Among others, Israeli operatives helped train right-wing Nicaraguan Contras, provided intelligence and small arms to the Guatemalan regime that killed over 200 000 people, razed villages and displaced over a million more – just as Israel had done with the Palestinians. This has opened a large market for Israeli arms and intelligence industries, but rarely was it accompanied by a comprehensive policy in trading agreements.

This is changing radically now. In times of global economic crisis and contracting markets in Europe and North America, where the first successes of the boycott movement have begun to compound Israel’s difficulties, finding new trading partners becomes crucial. Large scale expansion of markets in the Arab and Muslim world is ruled out. Even where governments are coaxed into discontinuing boycotts and sanctions, such as in Egypt or Jordan, public consensus effectively bars Israeli investments, services and products from penetrating the markets.

Latin America, and especially the Mercosur countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, are a potential life buoy for Israeli products and services. It is therefore no surprise that Lieberman has during his tour of the continent reiterated over and over again the need for the Mercosur to ratify the free trade agreement with Israel, signed in 2008. In addition, he is holding extensive meetings in each of the countries with the local business communities in order to push for further economic co-operation with Israel.

While for Israel South America has gained a renewed significance, for the people in the continent, Israel has nothing new to offer. Israeli arms and military training are still killing Latin Americans across the continent. Colombia is probably the biggest recipient of Israeli arms and training. "I learned an infinite amount of things in Israel, and to that country I owe part of my essence, my human and military achievements," admits Colombian paramilitary leader and indicted drug trafficker Carlos Castao. Even in countries like Brazil, Israel is still actively involved in the repression of the people. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have staged a campaign asking the state of Rio de Janeiro to stop using the Caveirão, the armoured transport vehicle imported from Israel, to kill indiscriminately, to intimidate whole communities and to mount operations involving the excessive use of force. While the entire American continent has isolated the current regime in Honduras, after the overthrow of the legitimate president, the leader of the coup has announced Israeli backing to his government. Several commentators have highlighted that in the months before the coup, the Israeli embassy was the scenario of intense diplomatic movement with important representatives of the opposition, including Micheletti.

Worse, Israeli diplomacy is designed to effectively block South America’s strategic and long standing efforts to develop South-South relations, such as the creation of the Mercosur, the establishment of the Bank of the South and diplomatic efforts to create special relationships such as the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) initiative. The strengthened relations with the Arab world and the energy producers of the Middle East are strategic ties which may allow the global South to play a stronger role in world politics and to create a more just world order. Israeli diplomatic efforts are working counter to all these projects. The scarecrow of Middle Eastern, and especially Iranian, influence, deployed once again by Lieberman is aimed to break up these important new ties of economic cooperation between the OPEC and other energy producing states. This is compounded by explicit calls to curtail South American unity. The virulent efforts to blackmail most of the member states of the ALBA would, if successful, fragment the integration among the countries and economies of the continent.

In fact, Lieberman’s visit to South America, and Israel’s new foreign policy strategy, force a choice on the governments and people of South America, which goes far beyond solidarity with Palestine: Does South American politics move forward in constructing a new continental and global order based on democracy, human rights and mutual solidarity or will it fall pray to those that are working against the emancipation of Latin America and the Global South?

The protests during Lieberman’s visit clarify where the people stand. They show that those that have built a colonial state on the destruction of the Palestinian people and have driven apartheid to most brutal excesses can never be allies and partners of democratic and progressive countries. In fact, the choice of countries on Lieberman’s agenda has probably not been so difficult – not many other South American states would have hosted the racist minister. Only in Brazil, Peru and Colombia the heads of state have accepted to meet with Lieberman. This gives President Lula a problematically ambiguous position – the leader of a progressive government ready to rally with those that are engaged in ongoing ethnic cleansing in Palestine and have financed and promoted the repression of the Latin American people. We hope that the recent victories won by the people of Latin America will translate into a will to impose popular demands on the governments that today still welcome Lieberman.

Palestinian civil society has repeatedly expressed its demand to South American states –not to ratify the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Israel, a treaty that will finance the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Even leaving the moral and political implications regarding Palestine aside, the treaty offers no meaningful economic profit for Latin America. Free trade with a tiny economy largely bereft of resources, such as Israel’s, would aid an insignificant number of South American businesses and workers.

The ratification of the FTA with Israel is the yard stick by which the world should measure South American politics. Accepting it, any rhetoric of human rights, democracy and common causes is exactly this – empty words which do not put any pressure on Israel; refusing it, South America can open a new chapter in the history of co-operation among the global South, and the struggle for Palestinian emancipation – a world in which sixty-year-old hollow promises are at last backed by concrete action.

– Jamal Juma’ is coordinator of the Palestinian grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.stopthewall.org.

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