Guatemala moved its embassy to Jerusalem on Wednesday, two days after Washington led the way. Later this month, Paraguay is slated to follow suit. The moves tell the tale of Latin America’s interests in Israel, some longstanding, others more recent, France Agency reports.
Paraguay’s move at the end of May will make Latin America the best represented region in the Holy City, embassy-wise. The calculus behind that equation is a complex mix of continental interests, religious beliefs and bilateral relations.
Guatemala, for example, has long enjoyed cordial relations with Israel. After all, Guatemala City was second only to Washington in recognising Israeli independence in 1948. The Central American nation had played an active role in the creation of Israel as one of 11 members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, charged in 1947 with proposing solutions to conflict in the region.
At the time – a moment that would prove so critical in shaping the future of the Middle East – Guatemalan ambassador Jorge Garcia Granados, “a pro-Zionist who had met twice with [future Israeli PM] Menachem Begin… pushed hard to get UNSCOP to adopt partition and to get it approved by the [UN] General Assembly”, as Emmanuel Navon, a professor of International Relations at the University of Tel Aviv and former member of the conservative Israeli Likud party wrote last year.
On Wednesday in Jerusalem, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales recalled that long friendship. “Seventy years ago, we decided to support and be friends with Israel, and we are demonstrating that again today,” he said. More than seven decades on, that bonds has remained strong.
“During Guatemala’s civil war [1960-1996], Israel was one of the primary providers of weapons and trainers of government forces against the guerrillas,” Christophe Ventura, a Latin America specialist at Paris’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), told FRANCE 24. At the end of the 1970s, Israelis maintained their support even after Washington, appalled by the army’s grisly reprisals, eschewed Guatemala City.
Elsewhere in Latin America, relations with Israel have not always been so cordial. In the early 2000s, the region saw a wave of leftists elected, leaders who more readily sided with the Palestinians. In 2010, diplomatic enmity peaked when Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Guyana and Ecuador recognised a Palestinian State “within 1967 borders” alongside Israel. Since then, the continent has “ebbed to the benefit of the centre-right and the right, as in Argentina and Paraguay”, says Ventura. “Those new governments are more favourable to Israel and Washington, so we can observe a realignment after a 15-year leftist interlude.”
Evident American influence
Jimmy Morales’s eagerness to follow a movement driven by Donald Trump is not entirely exempt of a desire to win favour with the American president. Like many Latin American countries, Guatemala is highly dependent on its powerful northern neighbour. “Latin American countries are sensitive to American diplomacy in general,” says Ventura. “In Argentina, for example, the Macri government shows a certain commitment to Israel and benefits, in return, from dividends on the US’s part.”
That reasoning has prevailed in Paraguay, too. “It is an act of political alignment with the US, with Trump policy,” Damien Larrouqué, a Paraguay specialist associated with the Sciences Po-CERI international relations think tank, tells France 24. “The current president, Horacio Cartes, who was elected in 2013, is ultra-conservative, like Donald Trump. He has conducted a policy of reinforcing links with Washington, a very clear alignment with North American policy.” While Paraguay has recognised a Palestinian State, it is almost by accident; it was in 2011, during the presidency of the leftist Fernando Lugo, who was ousted a year before the end of his term.
“Guatemala and Honduras, in particular, are completely in Washington’s orbit. They are dependent on their economic aid and have all of their attention in terms of drug trafficking,” continues Ventura, adding that Guatemala is particularly sensitive to American threats with regard to migration: with nearly a million Guatemalan nationals on US soil, Guatemala would be unable to reabsorb their return in great numbers.
It follows that Guatemala and Honduras both voted against the UN resolution condemning Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.
Evangelical Christians, Israeli allies
But that American ascendancy on its own Latin American “backyard” does not entirely explain Latin America’s interests in Israel. Religious considerations likely also come into play.
For his part, Guatemalan leader Morales has been criticised for his strong evangelical convictions. For Evangelical Christians, who are increasingly influential across the Americas, dogma holds that rebuilding a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem would ultimately lead to the return of Jesus Christ. Marcio Palacios, director of the school of political science at Guatemala’s San Carlos University, told Agence France-Presse that he regretted “that President Morales does not distinguish between what he represents and what he believes in”.
US Vice-President Mike Pence shares evangelical convictions, as do one quarter of all Americans according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. Eighty-one percent of evangelicals cast a vote for Trump in the 2016 election. Evangelical Christians have been lobbying for decades for the US to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apparently grasped Latin America’s diplomatic value. In September 2017, he was the first Israeli PM to go on a diplomatic tour there. He travelled to Argentina – with its 300,000-strong Jewish community, South America’s largest – and then onto Mexico and Colombia, three countries particularly anxious to win favour with the United States. Perhaps to that end, each of the three countries Netanyahu visited abstained from December’s UN General Assembly vote against the recognition of Jerusalem.