SÃO PAULO — Latin American countries have stepped up their diplomatic protest against Israel, ratcheting up international pressure over its military offensive in Gaza and rallying behind the Palestinians.
Five countries in Latin America — Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru — have now recalled their ambassadors to Israel for consultation: a major protest in diplomatic terms, and on Thursday, Costa Rica became the latest Latin nation to voice its concern over the “escalation of violence,” summoning the Israeli ambassador to the country for explanation.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has also declared Israel a “terrorist state” and torn up a long-standing free travel agreement between the two countries.
Along with Venezuela, Bolivia had already broken diplomatic ties with Israel in 2009. Both countries have condemned the latest bloodshed in the Middle East.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed its “deep disappointment” over the countries’ diplomatic moves.
Spokesman Yigal Palmor was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying that the Latin countries should instead “promote the international move intended to assist Israel in its efforts to defend innocent civilians and instate a durable ceasefire with the demilitarization of Gaza.”
However, it was the decision by Brazil last week that particularly irked Israel, threatening to spark a serious diplomatic row.
Palmor retaliated, mocking Brazil as “politically irrelevant” and a “diplomatic dwarf” even poking fun at the country’s infamous World Cup semifinal defeat.
“It was an exaggeration on Israel’s part, although Brazil clearly doesn’t have the political clout to match its economic stature as the world’s seventh economy,” Andrew Traumann, a professor in Brazil’s Middle East relations at the Unicuritiba university, told Anadolu Agency (AA).
“However, Brazil recalling its ambassador is a very strong political message; tantamount to a break in relations. We’ve never seen such a big signal from Brazil before. It’s particularly strange now given Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s dislike of foreign policy and preference for dealing with economic matters,” Traumann says.
Despite the slur, Brazil bit its tongue and repeatedly stated that it considered Israel a “friend” and recognised its right to defend itself:
“Brazil was the first country to recognise Israel,” Rousseff aid, adding that the country’s ambassador to Tel Aviv would return in due course. “But there is a massacre ongoing in the Gaza Strip,” she continued, reiterating calls from the United Nations for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Test for trade
A statement released on Tuesday by four of the five members of the Mercosur group of South American economies – which includes Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay – condemned Israel’s “disproportionate use of force”.
It also appeared to put the bloc’s framework agreement on trade with Israel on ice.
One of Latin America’s leading economies, Chile, also suspended its free trade agreement negotiations with Israel – a significant step given the countries’ deep economic and military ties.
Chile also has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East, and some of the biggest rallies against Israel’s military offensive in South America have been seen in the capital, Santiago.
Indeed rallies in support of both Palestine and Israel have been held across Latin America, from Mexico to Chile, although pro-Palestinian protests have far outweighed those backing Israel.
However, pro-Israel rallies seen in cities with significant Jewish communities, such as the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay, and Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, have lambasted any statement by their countries questioning Israel’s operations in Gaza.
A number of countries in the region have also not joined in the wave of diplomatic protests.
Regional heavyweights Colombia and Mexico have maintained their ambassadors in Tel Aviv.
Paraguay refused to sign the joint Mercosur statement condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza, and although Uruguay did sign, it has not recalled its envoy.
Argentina has summoned Israel’s ambassador in the country, but mainly to seek assurances over the safety of an Argentine priest and his colleagues working in the Gaza Strip.
Among the war of words, Israel has also tried to point out that it is fighting Hamas, recognized by the United States, the European Union and others as a terrorist organisation, drawing parallels with terror groups in South America.
Reacting to Peru’s decision to recall its envoy, Israel’s ambassador in Peru, Modi Ephraim, said: “Peru, a country that suffered so much through terrorism, must support us in the fight against terror,” referring to the period of conflict in the country that saw 70,000 lose their lives in violence between government forces and the Shining Path insurgency, the AA’s Alex Pashley reported from Lima.
Brazil leads as Latin America protests
Although Ecuador was the first to recall its ambassador in reaction to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, Professor Alberto Pfeifer, an expert on international relations at the University of São Paulo (USP), says that Brazil has taken the lead in the region, prompting others to follow suit.
“Brazil is an important player in the region and now has a significant voice. It has long shown a desire to deepen relations with the Arab World and now has taken a stand over Israel and Gaza – not politically taking sides, but defending human rights, an area on which it is traditionally robust,” Pfeifer told the AA.
“Brazil also has elections coming up, which appears to have motivated an even stronger position from the ruling government, given the weakness of the country’s economy. [Rousseff] is taking advantage of this display of firmness and leadership. Considerable trade with the Arab World is another contributing factor,” the USP professor explains.
Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was the first president to visit the Arab World since Emperor Pedro II in the 19th century, visiting 12 countries during his time in office, deepening relations with the region and the Arab League, Pfeifer points out. Although Rousseff has travelled far less than her predecessor, the underlying bond between Brazil and the region still appears to remain.
Brazil’s proactive approach to this conflict is also explained by its desire for a permanent seat on UN Security Council, on which progress has stalled, challenging the view that Brazil is staunchly neutral country which largely abstains in UN voting.
The stand by Brazil and other countries in Latin America against Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has been seen as a departure from the region’s traditionally less punchy position in global politics – something that will certainly be welcomed by those who see the United States and Europe as too dominant in international foreign policy.