As the American-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain came to a close at the end of June, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continued his lobbying efforts to denounce the U.S. peace plan and the Manama summit. During a press conference held with his Chilean counterpart in Ramallah, the octogenarian leader reiterated the importance of a political solution prior to the implementation of regional economic projects like those proposed in the White House’s plan. Abbas’ simultaneous emphasis on Palestinian national rights and bilateral relations with Chile in the context of the Manama conference was by no means a coincidence. With the increased influence of right-wing populism and evangelicalism, Abbas has seen the region’s historic commitment to the Palestinian cause wane. These internal changes, along with a pivot toward Washington, have, in turn, aided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making further inroads on the South American continent.
Pro-Palestinian sentiment in Latin America
Home to around 500,000 inhabitants of Palestinian descent — the largest group outside the Middle East — Chile is a natural partner for Palestinian outreach. During his latest visit to the country in May 2018, Abbas therefore made a conscious effort to visit Palestinian clubs, including the Palestino soccer team, considered to represent the “national team for the Palestinian people” and “the Palestinian struggle.” The Palestinian president’s outreach to Latin America extends back to his second term, when tours to the region successfully garnered international recognition for Palestine; in late 2010, almost all South American countries — with the exception of Colombia — recognized the Palestinian state. In a symbolic demonstration of this recognition, Brazil, which was the first South American country to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, donated a piece of land to build a future Palestinian embassy.
While left-leaning ideology has traditionally played a role in the region’s embrace of Palestine, individual Latin American nations’ response to the first application for Palestinian membership in the UN in 2011 revealed that political support could also be found among more conservative regimes, such as Peru and Chile. In 2018, Chile — under the continued leadership of Sebastian Piñera — became the second country in the world to approve legislation calling for the government to boycott Israeli settlements in any future agreement with Israel, to re-examine past agreements, and to provide guidelines to Chilean citizens visiting or doing business in Israel, so that they understand the country’s historical context and do “not support colonization or cooperate with human rights violations in the occupied territories.”
President Trump’s foreign policy in Latin America: Challenging Palestinian outreach
In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinian leader has sought to amplify his outreach to Latin America in an attempt to counter the influence of American foreign policy and emulation of the controversial U.S. decision. The above-mentioned May 2018 trip to three Latin American countries — Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela — thus sought to ensure that these nations would reject the U.S. bid to convince other countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem. Beyond leveraging pre-existing cultural and economic ties, Abbas has utilized internal politics to reinforce bilateral relations and garner support for Palestinian demands. In the midst of Venezuela’s ongoing political chaos and U.S.-Israeli support for self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó, the Palestinians have criticized — both in demonstrations and in official statements — “American intervention” as “an extension of the Trump administration’s policy of denying the will of the people.” In a further sign of “loyalty to the Venezuelan people and the leaders who stand with the Palestinian people,” the Palestinian Authority (PA) sent a team of 16 doctors to Venezuela to perform free surgeries and provide medical care in March 2019. The month-long medical mission constituted a reciprocal move; five years earlier, the pro-Palestinian President Nicolas Maduro provided medical assistance for Palestinians in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge offensive.
Beyond Trump’s Middle East foreign policy gambits, three political trends are challenging Abbas’ foothold in Latin America and the region’s historical commitment to the Palestinian cause — to the benefit of his Israeli counterpart. The rise of right-wing leaders in places such as Argentina and Brazil in 2015 and 2019 respectively has led to a dramatic improvement in bilateral relations with Israel, which hopes to increase voting support in international forums like the UN. In an attempt to placate his evangelical supporters, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro played up his pro-Israel stance and, concomitantly, abandoned Brazil's former pro-Palestinian and pro-Iranian position during his election campaign. To this end, he promised to follow the Americans and relocate Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem. Under the influence of the country’s powerful farm lobby, however, he later reneged on this promise in favor of an official diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem.
The road to Washington runs through Tel Aviv
Israel’s increased footprint in Latin America has equally benefitted from President Trump’s foreign policy in the region and the resulting desire to move closer to Washington. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is one leader seeking to garner favor with President Trump, who reduced foreign aid assistance to Tegucigalpa by about $38 million last year and has criticized U.S.-bound emigration from the country. The road to Washington, according to Hernández, a decade-long supporter of Israel, runs through Tel Aviv. Insight into this tacit understanding came last year, when Honduras was one of only nine countries to vote in favor of the U.S. embassy move at the UN; in the aftermath of the vote it was the only Latin American country, along with Guatemala, invited to the “friendship party” hosted by then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
President Trump’s threats to withdraw U.S. aid to Honduras, which amounted to $105 million in 2017, reportedly led Hernández to ask Netanyahu to mediate between him and the Trump administration in exchange for transferring the Honduran embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In March, Honduras announced that it would open a trade office in the contested city of Jerusalem as a first step toward relocating its diplomatic mission. The quid pro quo suggested by Hernández was a page straight out of Guatemala’s playbook. In May 2018, two days after the inauguration of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, the Central American country relocated its embassy to Jerusalem as well; to date, it remains the only nation that has permanently followed in the United States’ footsteps. Following this transfer, the White House significantly reduced its previously vocal support for ongoing international corruption investigations into, among other things, illicit campaign financing in Guatemala.
The Israeli prime minister, who has visited the region four times since September 2017 to “mark a new era in relations between Israel and Latin America,” has also keenly utilized regional states’ reliance on surveillance and military technology to foster closer relations. Reports indicate that Bolsonaro’s recent visit to Israel was used to discuss the acquisition of drones with facial recognition to pursue criminal suspects and reduce Brazil's high crime and murder rates. Following a reduction in U.S. military cooperation with Tegucigalpa, Israel and Honduras struck a new security accord, building on a long history of providing defense equipment — at times illegally — to the country. In 2016, the two nations signed a security agreement worth more than $200 million, despite concerns over Honduras’ extra-judicial usage of military equipment and human rights violations. While Hernández did not offer specifics at the time, the regime revealed in 2017 that it had bought $209 million worth of weapons and surveillance drones from Israel. According to reports, close U.S. ally Colombia, which is in the midst of modernizing its aerial defense, is engaged in discussions with Israel Aerospace Industries to provide the Barak-8 medium-range surface-to-air missile system. One of the catalysts driving Colombian interest in the advanced air defense system is the increased tension and military concentration along its border with Venezuela.
With the announcement of Israel’s do-over election in September following the failure to form a coalition, Netanyahu will try to re-emphasize his foreign policy acumen to secure a victory at the polls. Reflecting both the ongoing alignment in the Middle East and, indeed, across the globe, the legally-embattled Israeli prime minister depends on his close relationship with Trump for an electoral boost. For Netanyahu, the Latin America gambit therefore relies on — and also helps to secure — ongoing coordination with Washington. At the same time, as part of its international effort to slam the U.S.-touted economic peace plan, Abbas will continue to urge Latin American nations to reject any Mideast peace plan that disregards the Palestinian leadership’s positions on core, final-status issues and “liquidate[s] the rights of the Palestinian people.” With the political portion of the U.S. plan being delayed until after the Israeli elections, Netanyahu and Abbas’ battle for Latin America will press on.
Grace Wermenbol is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and an expert in contemporary geopolitics of the broad Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The views she expresses are strictly her own.
(Photo by CLAUDIO REYES/AFP/Getty Images)