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Latin America turns against Israel

Astrid Prange / dbAugust 7, 2014

Throughout Latin America, criticism of Israel's operation in the Gaza Strip is on the rise. Nations with a colonial history of their own regard Israel as an occupying power.

Protests in Brazil
Image: MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

In Latin America, Brazil is on the forefront of politics critical of Israel.

After Brazil recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations in July, several other countries in the region quickly followed suit: Chile, Peru, El Salvador, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

"Almost all countries in Latin America follow Brazil's position," says Salem Hikmat Nasser, an expert on international law at Brazil's:link:http://portal.fgv.br/en# Fundacao Getulio Vargas (FGV) University.# "They see the war in Gaza as the Palestinians' national struggle toward liberation in the face of a colonial occupying power."

Latin America's own colonial history is a common denominator in the region's critical attitude toward Israel. At the Mercosur summit last month in Caracas, the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay urgently demanded an "investigation of all violations of international humanitarian law and crimes in the Gaza Strip, and the identification of those responsible."

Appeal to Security Council

Following the second bombing of UN quarters in Gaza, Argentina, too, reacted. "Buenos Aires regards the Israeli military attacks on a United Nations school to be a criminal act that must be investigated in order to bring those responsible to court," a Foreign Ministry statement said on August 3, adding that the Security Council must intervene.

Brazil's increasingly critical position toward Israel is the result of a change of tack in foreign policy strategies during Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's presidency. Contrary to previous Israel-friendly Brazilian governments, Lula da Silva focused on closer political ties to the Arab world during his 2003- 2010 term.

Mercosur summit presidents
Mercosur leaders condemned the Israeli offensive in GazaImage: Reuters

On December 1, 2010 Brazil officially recognized Palestine as a state. Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Uruguay quickly followed suit, long after Cuba, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic had already taken similar steps.

"Brazil always signaled a special bond with Israel, and it didn't want to violate the country's interests," Nasser says, arguing that this position changed under President Lula. His successor Dilma Rousseff continued Lula's course. Last month, Brazil supported a resolution critical of Israel by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

"Diplomatic dwarf"

Brazil's Foreign Ministry also condemned "Israel's disproportionate use of violence in the Gaza Strip," and summoned the Israeli ambassador in the capital Brasilia. At the same time, Brazil's ambassador to Israel was recalled for consultations. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor subsequently referred to Brazil as a "diplomatic dwarf," and dismissed Brazilian diplomacy as simply "irrelevant."

Brazilian sociologist Demetrio Magnoli of Sao Paulo University is one of the few who agree with the critical voices from Israel. "Brazil turned into a diplomatic dwarf when Lula introduced his new foreign policies 11 years ago," the well-known critic and foreign policy expert told the national media.

For ex-President Lula, the ideological interests of Brazil's PT Workers' Party came first. As a result, Brazilian foreign policies were not consistent, Magnoli argues, pointing out that the government "remained silent in the face of human rights abuse in Cuba, Venezuela and Russia, but criticized the disproportionate use of violence in Gaza."

Technology "Made in Israel"

Despite the current political ice age between Israel and South America, trade ties are strong thanks to the Mercosur bloc's freed trade agreement with Israel. Trade between Brazil and Israel in particular is on the rise. From 2003 to 2013, exports to Israel increased from $187 million (139.9 million euros) to $454 million annually, the Brazilian Trade Ministry reports.

At the same time, imports from Israel increased from $318 million to $1.1 billion. Brazil mainly exports food to Israel, and mainly imports technology and military goods.

Be that as it may, Israel has lost the battle for the Latin American public's favorable opinion, Salem Nasser says. "It's time for Brazil to take a stronger stance, even if the Jewish community in the country is well-organized," he says. "Brazil is anything but a diplomatic dwarf."