Latin America: more nations recall Israel envoys

A total of five Latin American governments had recalled their ambassadors to Israel as of July 29 in an escalation of diplomatic protests against an operation the Israeli military had been carrying out in the Palestinian territory of Gaza since July 8. With the Palestinian death toll passing 1,500—including more than 300 children—centrist and even rightwing Latin American governments started joining left and center-left government in distancing themselves from the main US ally in the Middle East.

Chile, El Salvador and Peru called their ambassadors home for consultations on July 29; Ecuador had already recalled its ambassador on July 17, followed by Brazil on July 24. While it condemned the firing of rockets into Israel by the Gaza-based Hamas organization, the center-left government of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet denounced Israeli attacks on the Palestinians as "collective punishment," saying they "violate the principle of proportionality in the use of force, an indispensable requirement for the justification of legitimate defense." El Salvador's center-left government said it was responding to "the serious escalation in violence and the realization of indiscriminate bombing from Israel into the Gaza Strip," while Peru's centrist government charged that Israel's actions "constitute a new and reiterated violation of the basic norms of international humanitarian law."

Also on July 29, four of the five members of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur)—Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela—issued a joint statement during a summit held in Caracas saying they "energetically condemn the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, which in the majority affects civilians, including children and women." Argentina and Uruguay didn't recall their ambassadors, but the left-leaning government of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner issued a statement expressing concern over the safety of an Argentine priest working in Gaza and that of 30 disabled children, nine elderly people and six nuns in his care. Venezuela broke off relations with Israel over a similar Israeli operation in Gaza in 2009; it is planning to send humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory now.

On July 30 the rightwing government of Paraguay, the one Mercosur member that didn't join in the statement, called for "an immediate end to aggression and hostilities" in the Gaza Strip. The center-right government of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos also seemed to be moving away from support of Israel. In a July 10 press release Colombia had condemned "acts of violence and terrorism against Israel," without mentioning Israeli operations, but a July 22 statement from the Foreign Ministry said Colombia "rejects the military offensive by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip" and expresses condolences for "victims of Israel's retaliatory actions."

The harshest condemnation of Israel's actions came from center-left Bolivian president Evo Morales, who on July 30 described Israel as a "terrorist state." He announced that his government was cancelling an agreement that had been in effect since 1972 allowing Israelis to visit without a visa requirement. Bolivia has had limited diplomatic ties with Israel since 2009, when Morales' government restricted relations to protest the Gaza operation then.

With the strong statements from its governments, Latin America "has set itself apart from other regional blocs," according to Michael Shifter, the president of the centrist Washington, DC-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. The "emerging consensus condemning Israel for its military actions in Gaza is not surprising," he said, given that 11 Latin American governments had recognized Palestine as a state by 2011. Farid Kahhat, a political scientist and Middle East expert with the Catholic University of Peru, noted that now "[i]t isn't only the nations with left-leaning governments that have recalled their ambassadors… This transcends ideologies."

The Israeli government continued to react angrily to the protests from Latin America. "Israel expresses its deep disappointment with the hasty decision of the governments of El Salvador, Peru and Chile to recall their ambassadors for consultations," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said on July 30. "This step constitutes encouragement for Hamas, a group recognized as a terror organization by many countries around the world." The statement was more moderate than Palmor's dismissal of Brazil a week earlier as a "diplomatic dwarf," a remark that led the Brazilian Jewish Confederation (CONIB), an umbrella body of Brazilian Jewish groups, to apologize to the government of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on July 24. CONIB itself had charged that Rousseff's administration had "a one-sided attitude to the conflict in Gaza in which the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticizes Israel and ignores the actions of the terrorist group Hamas," but CONIB president Claudio Lottenberg called Palmor's comments, which included a sneer at the Brazilian soccer team, "very unfortunate." "Brazil has the right to express its point of view," Lottenberg said. (Haaretz, Israel, July 24, from Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 30 from staff; Wall Street Journal, July 30; Latin American Herald Tribune, July 30, from EFE; The Americas Blog, July 31)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 3.