Colombia Just Had a Change of Guard on Palestine

Published August 15th, 2018 - 10:44 GMT
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota, 2017. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

By Eleanor Beevor

Political and trade relations between Latin America and the Middle East are older and deeper than many realise. But the Israel-Palestine conflict has always been less of a security matter for Latin America than an ideological one. States declared their side in the conflict according to the image that they wanted to project in the world.

And given the large number of leftist governments that arose in the region after the Cold War, those proclaimed solidarities overwhelmingly lay with Palestine. But one persistent exception was Colombia. Or at least, it was up until last week.


America's $10 BN War on Drugs

Bogota had plenty of reasons for wanting to maintain good relations with Israel. The Colombian government was for decades fighting the Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its initials FARC.

Though Colombia has had a reliably democratic system for much of the past century, the shocking inequalities in the country lent traction to FARC’s communist rhetoric, even as the group faced widespread opposition for its violence.

Despite the recent peace agreement, tensions are still bubbling. The settlement with FARC was actually rejected in a referendum by the Colombian people. The peace deal was passed by government anyway, with some adjustments, but the controversy has jarred the prospects of truly peaceful reintegration. 

Whoever was in power in Bogota over the last few decades tended to keep themselves ideologically distinct from FARC, and from Colombia’s leftist neighbours. Bogota needed all the outside support it could get when it came to battling both FARC and Colombia’s powerful drug cartels.

And America was its most reliable supporter on that front, and an ally that it could not afford to alienate. America, keen to clean up its domestic cocaine use problem, has seen successive administrations pour $10 billion into the fight against the drug trade.  

This need to maintain a very distinct worldview from far-left Latin American politics extended to Colombia’s stance on the Middle East. It led to the country adopting some positions that were highly unusual in the region.

Colombia, the Middle East and Israel 

Colombia nominally supported the invasion of Iraq, with then-President Alvaro Uribe declaring that “…it would be wrong for a country besieged by terrorism to deny its support for the war on terrorism in the world”. (That may also have been down to Bogota hoping to brand its domestic fight as part of the global “War on Terror”). 

It is not true to say that Colombia has been actively anti-Palestinian. Palestine has actually been one of its most significant Middle Eastern trade partners. However, it maintained relations with Israel that were more than cordial. Israel was much more to Colombia than just a political signal.

Israel was – both commercially and diplomatically – a staunch aide to Bogota as it dealt with both the FARC insurgency and the infamous, and violent Colombian drug trade.  Israel has sold past Colombian administrations extensive military and surveillance technologies, sales which – according to the Financial Times – would have required Israeli government approval. 

Israel also played an important assistance role in the release of the Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was held captive by the FARC for six years after being kidnapped in 2002. Israeli security advisors stepped in at Colombia’s request, and provided technology and former security agents to help undertake the operation, although the release itself was carried out by the Colombian military.

Betancourt’s release, along with her fellow hostages, was described by several commentators as a “Colombian Entebbe”, a reference to the 1976 Israeli operation to free hostages trapped in Entebbe, Uganda, after their flight was hijacked by pro-Palestinian activists. 

As part of the peace deal, the FARC guerrilla group will now begin its life as a political group in Colombia (AFP)

Israel thus had good reason to assume that support from Bogota was safe, and maybe even set to grow. When campaigning for the recent election in May 2018, the then-candidate and now President Ivan Duque said at a rally that he would consider moving the Colombian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, in light with President Trump’s highly controversial relocation of the US Embassy last December. (Colombia was one of the few countries that abstained in the UN vote to condemn the American decision). Duque was forced to backtrack somewhat a few days later, and reiterated his support for the two-state solution and Colombia’s wish to help with the peace process. 

A New President

But a very different decision by the outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos was in the works at the same time – one to recognise Palestine “…as a free, sovereign and independent state”. And apparently, it was not Santos’s decision alone, but made with the consultation and agreement of Duque, who won Colombia’s Presidential election on June 17th.

Santos remained in office up until Duque’s inauguration on August 7th, during which time his foreign minister informed the Palestinian Authority of Colombia’s decision. 

However, neither the public nor, it seems, Israel were any the wiser. Netanyahu had cancelled his plan to attend Duque’s swearing-in ceremony, but cited instability in Gaza as the reason for the change of plan. Tzachi Hanegbi, the Minister for Regional Cooperation was sent in his place, and he wished the outgoing Santos good luck at the ceremony.

It seems that the first Israel found out about it was when the plan to recognise Palestine was leaked to the media on August 8th, just after Duque had been sworn in. 


Israel was evidently caught off-guard. The Israeli Embassy in Bogota issued an angry statement condemning not only the decision, but how it had been announced. And it seems that the new administration, though it effectively confirmed that it had been aware the decision, said that the new government would review it, according to how it would affect Colombia’s foreign relations, and according to international law. Ramallah, too, seems uncertain that the decision will stand – it cautiously welcomed it, but has refrained from seeing it as a done deal. 

Some have interpreted this recognition of Palestine as a “legacy” move by the departing Santos, keen to cement his reputation as a peacemaker after winning the Nobel peace prize in 2016 for his role in drawing the war with FARC to a close. That may be so, though why Duque apparently gave it his blessing prior to assuming office is a more complicated matter. It may be that Duque thought this would be a symbolic, and ultimately not especially significant decision for Colombia - an assumption that may ultimately prove to be true.  

But Duque’s initial acceptance of the decision could also be a declaration that Colombia will run a foreign policy course independent from the United States. It would serve to counter a perception that Washington can dictate Bogota’s affairs.

Whilst the Trump administration sees Duque as an ally they can work with – and certainly a far preferable candidate than his leftist opponent Gustavo Petro – many Colombians have a strong dislike for the U.S. president. 

In September 2017, Trump threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs because of a recent spike in coca plantations. While Trump is known for making threats as part of his “art of the deal” view of politics, this was seen as a slap in the face by Colombians, since he failed to acknowledge their own vast efforts against the drug trade, and the suffering that violence from the cartels has caused its people.

Trump’s incendiary remarks about Latin American immigrants, and his cruel treatment of families attempting to cross the border, have further soured his reputation. 


Recognising Palestine

Duque sticking to the policy of recognising Palestine could help allay fears that he will do Washington’s bidding, a necessary move when many of the demands Trump has made of Bogota are extremely controversial. Many Colombians fear a return to conflict if Bogota tries to get too tough.

But Trump wants to see a return of aerial spraying of coca plantations with herbicides, a practice that was banned by Bogota in 2015 since the chemicals were deemed a health hazard. 

Bogota is sure to face a stiff reprimand from the United States, and from Israel, who do not want to encourage a wave of support for Palestine as they try to push through a new American-led peace process. U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis is due to visit Colombia in the coming week, and may take the opportunity to push Israel’s case. 

Still, the affair is unlikely to dominate the American relationship with Bogota. Washington is far more concerned about Venezuela, and sees Colombia as a key ally in forwarding its interests in Latin America. If Duque chooses to stand by Palestine, it is unlikely Colombia will suffer much from it.

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