When in late 2009 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran at the time, made an unprecedented visit to Brazil at the invitation of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Israel took note. Not six months later, traveling through Israel, Lula declined to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the philosophical father of Zionism, whose tomb is an official stop for visiting heads of state. He made sure, though, to lay a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat.
Lula’s pronounced distaste for the Jewish state only made explicit the anti-Israel sentiment that has been simmering for decades in Latin America — a reality that, many have observed, is detrimental to Israel and Latin America both. With the United States and Europe facing the consequences of years of flawed economic policy, Israel is looking elsewhere for new economic partners, particularly for its noted high-tech industry, and burgeoning Central and South American markets present attractive opportunities. But there is an impediment to a mutually beneficial partnership, and it is not economic but political.
Since the beginning of the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, five Latin American nations — Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru — have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, officially severing diplomatic ties. Venezuela and Bolivia cut ties in 2009, and Nicaragua in 2010, but in late July Bolivia expanded its censure, ending a visa-exemption agreement with Israel that has been in effect since 1972. President Evo Morales declared Israel a “terrorist state.” A lawmaker from Venezuela’s ruling party called Israel’s latest operation “genocide.”
A strong anti-Israel reaction from the region is not overly surprising. The largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world is in Latin America; 280,000 persons of Palestinian descent reside in Honduras, 350,000 in Chile, and tens of thousands more are scattered throughout the continent. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Latin America are Christian, but they sympathize with the cause of Palestinian nationalism, if not with the Islamist groups, such as Hamas, that tout it.
Latin America has also long been a bastion of political leftism; from Che Guevara and the Castros to the evangelists of liberation theology, political schemers have found inspiration in Marx and his utopian dreams. Cuba, the zenith (or perhaps nadir) of Latin American Communism, cut diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973, on the occasion of the Yom Kippur War. In the 1970s anti-American sentiment, common in Latin America, also extended to Israel, perceived by many to be merely an appendage of the U.S.
To change this perception is the goal of the Friends of Israel Initiative. Founded in 2011, the organization is the brainchild of several prominent figures on the global stage — José María Aznar, former president of Spain; John Bolton, former U.S. representative to the United Nations (and a National Review contributor); the late dissident and former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel; and several others. The members employ their professional connections to shift the global perception of Israel, by showing foreign leaders and policymakers that — in the words of the organization’s website — that “Israel [is] a democratic, open, and advanced nation like any other, and that it should be perceived and treated as such.”
The organization usually operates behind the scenes, but it recently issued an open letter challenging Latin America’s recent anti-Israel diplomacy. The letter was sent to heads of state, cabinet officials, legislators, and media outlets throughout Latin America.
“If you look at the Latin American media in the last three weeks,” says Rafael Bardají, executive director of the Friends of Israel Initiative, “everything has been against Israel. We wanted to offer at least one voice that was different.”
The authors briefly debunk many of the fallacies that inform anti-Israel sentiment: It was not Israel that began this war, they observe, and Hamas is not a humanitarian organization but a terrorist group that uses Palestinian civilians to shield its operations. In the final accounting, the authors contend, “It seems to us an aberration to equate morally the contending parties, since on one side are terror, fanatical Islamic tyranny, and the cult of death, while on the other side are liberty, prosperity, and the defense of life. Barbarism and civilization cannot be put on the same plane.” The longer foreign leaders continue to do so, the more likely it is that terrorism will persist — and that is a threat not just to the Jewish community, but to the whole Western world.
The letter’s signatories include Alejandro Toledo, former president of Peru; Luis Alberto Lacalle de Herrera, former president of Uruguay; and exiled Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner.
Uprooting decades of entrenched ideology is no easy task. “Ideology,” says Bardají, is the reason that Latin American countries have rejected the “panoply of options” that could develop their continent and bolster Israel. Still, if the efforts of the Friends of Israel Initiative and others can shift Latin America away from reflexive criticism of Israel and toward openness to political and economic cooperation, the benefits would be many and mutual.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.