NEW YORK – It’s a long way from Tel Aviv to Brasilia, but the journey just got a bit longer. When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, Brazil bristled. President Dilma Rousseff, who rarely gets in a lather over foreign policy, called Israel’s move into Gaza “a massacre” and recalled her ambassador for consultation.
Israel hit back, with a foreign ministry spokesman snubbing the South American giant as a nation that had become “irrelevant” in world affairs.
That stung, in part because it was a familiar slight: former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda once famously slammed Brazil as “a giant that acts like a dwarf” for falling silent while human rights were trampled in Venezuela and Cuba.
As goes Brazil, so goes Latin America, and soon the anti-Israel meme was speaking fluent Spanish as well. Mercosur, a South American trade bloc, called on the United Nations to probe Israeli “war crimes.” Argentina, Peru, Chile and El Salvador also ordered their envoys back home, while Chile’s legislature froze talks over a bilateral trade deal.
Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, who had sent Tel Aviv’s ambassador packing years ago, called Israel “a terrorist state” and restored visa controls on Israeli tourists, while Venezuela offered to take in Palestinian refugees.
Even Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, whose recent praise for Israel swept the Internet, recalled his envoy.
And it was all going so well. Just a few months ago, Israel was Latin America’s newest best friend. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced a pivot to the Americas, with a $14.5 million plan to tighten economic ties and expand diplomatic outposts in the region. “We are making a very concentrated and focused effort to vary our markets, from our previous dependence on the European market, to the growing Asian and Latin American markets,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet in May.
Israel was named an observer state in the Pacific Alliance, a $3 trillion trade compact in northern South America. And in a state visit to seal a bilateral-trade deal, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered nothing but hosannas. “If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud,” he said in Tel Aviv.
That was then. Now Latin Americans have joined the rhetorical rocket launch, marching for Palestine, burning the Israeli flag and blitzing social media with photographs of the mayhem in Gaza.
But don’t count on anyone shredding treaties or canceling trade agreements. Israel and Latin America go back a long way. Latin nations were early backers of the Jewish state, providing 12 of the 33 votes needed for the two-thirds majority to pass the U.N. resolution creating Israel in 1947. “But for Latin America, there would be no Israel today,” claimed Fox News’ Latino front man Geraldo Rivera.
Since then, Israel has renewed its bonds to Latin America, supplying around $1.5 billion a year in fertilizers, electronics, farm equipment, medicine and defense technology and consulting to Latin America last year, including $107 million in arms sales in 2012.
Some 30 Israeli defense suppliers set up booths at the Latin American Aerospace and Defense Fair, in Rio de Janeiro, last year.
True, diplomatic relations cooled since the 1970s, when Latin America embraced the pro-Palestinian consensus of the nonaligned nations, and later backed the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state. With the rise of populist caudillos in the Andes, the blowback lately has grown shrill, and occasionally hateful.
Yet much of the current outrage is fueled by internal ideological quarrels, with Israel cast as a stand-in for the more familiar brand of gringo imperialism. “Some populist leaders have only a proximate notion of world affairs today,” says Jaime Aparicio Otero, a former Bolivian ambassador to Washington. In a recent broadside, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro lashed out at Israel for “destroying more than 50 synagogues …sorry, I mean mosques.”
As Gaza smolders, the anti-Israel drumbeat is likely to continue, but the smart money says the damage will remain confined to the rhetorical battlefield. “Latin diplomacy was correct in criticizing Israel’s excesses in Gaza, but no one is interested in severing relations,” says former Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia. “There’s too much at stake.”
So, look for a lingering verbal storm over the Atlantic, but also for more shipping containers.
Mac Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ. Previously he reported on Latin America for Newsweek and was a frequent contributor to The Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy. He is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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