Many Israelis know Argentina because of their post-military service trip. The beautiful landscapes, meat, and alfajores have become the main characteristic of this connection. But Israel’s and Argentina’s relations are much deeper. Although the South American country abstained from voting on the UN decision to adopt the Partition plan for the creation of a Jewish State in November 1947, the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1949.
The bilateral relationship has since gone through ups and downs, but three significant events have defined it. The first was the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann by the Mossad in 1960, which created a deep crisis between the countries that took years to solve. Two other events are the terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and to the building of the Jewish community AMIA in 1994, with a total of over 100 people were murdered. Even though the attacks occurred more than 25 years ago, none were arrested in association with the attacks. The investigation of the events has had a significant influence on contemporary relations, as we will see in the following paragraphs.
In order to define the current status of the bilateral relationship, it is necessary to look back to 2003. During that year, after a deep economic crisis, an unknown governor of a small province named Nestor Kirchner came to power in Argentina. In 2006 he decided to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the attack on the Jewish community building, called Alberto Nisman. During the Kirchner government (until 2007), Argentina accused Hezbollah of perpetrating the attack with the collaboration of a local connection. During his presidency, Kirschner used the stage of the General Assembly of the United Nations to demand that the Iranians allow the interrogation of the accused officials.
The following year his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was elected President, and until 2010 she continued with her husband’s policy. However, with the death of Nestor in 2010, a radical change of attitude had taken place in Argentina. Cristina, who was reelected in 2011, decided to deepen even more the relationship of the country with the “anti-colonialist axis” comprised of countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Iran.
This approach led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Argentina and Iran in 2013, creating a “Truth Committee” composed by jurists of both sides and neutral judges, which would investigate and interrogate the defendants on Iranian soil. Despite Israel’s and the local Jewish community’s complains, the MOU was approved and ratified later that year by the Argentine Congress. However, the accord was not enforced due to its non-ratification by Iran. This issue has raised questions in Argentina about why the Iranian Parliament did not address the MOU.
In 2015, the MOU topic was raised again by the public, when Alberto Nisman (the special prosecutor for the AMIA attack) declared that he had evidence that the purpose of the memorandum was to provide impunity to the Iranian leadership. According to his accusation, the plan consisted of the establishment of a food for fuel program in exchange for the revocation of the Interpol Red Alerts detention orders. Nisman was invited to Congress to detail his accusation the next Monday. His body was found dead the night before. To this date, and after almost three years, the Argentinian judicial system hasn’t been able to conclude if Nisman was murdered had he committed suicide as the Argentinian government suggested at the time.
However, things were about to change. At the end of the year 2015, there were elections in Argentina. After winning the second round, the opposition’s candidate, Mauricio Macri, became President, and the relations between Israel and Argentina took a different direction. Macri is a businessman with a pro-market view who advocated opening Argentina to the world. He also has a personal friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well had previously visited Israel as governor of Buenos Aires, praising the country as a model to follow.
The improvement in relations was exemplified by Netanyahu’s choice to visit Argentina first during his Latin American tour, which included Colombia and Mexico in September 2017. Beyond Argentina’s strategic importance, it is also home to the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, with around 180 thousand members and about 90 thousand Argentinians living currently in Israel. Furthermore, high-level visits became more frequent. During his four year mandate, the Argentinian Vice President, and the ministers of Defense Justice had visited the country. From a defense standpoint, an increase in defense equipment purchases was registered. Also, in 2019, Argentina decided to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a decision acclaimed by the US Secretary of State Pompeo and by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
But this “honeymoon” was about to end. Despite its many foreign policy accomplishments, during the case of Macri’s period (including the organization of a G20 meeting), Argentina suffered a severe economic crisis that included currency depreciation ( from 15 Argentinian pesos valuing 1 dollar in 2015 to over 60 Argentinian pesos valuing a dollar today) annual inflation exceeding 50% per annum, and over 35% of households are below the poverty line. All of these factors led Macri to lose the 2019 elections against an old-new candidate, Alberto Fernandez, who served as the Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers under the government of Nestor Kirchner government.
Fernandez’s election could not have been possible without the support of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who published a video before the elections stating that she decided to run as Vice-President, choosing Alberto as her candidate for the leadership of the country.
Significant signs of an imminent change and “cooling” of the bilateral relationship could be seen even before Fernandez’s inauguration, which took place on December 10th. The first was Argentina’s approach to Maduro’s Venezuela. During Macri’s government, he defined Venezuela’s rule as a dictatorship headed by a tyrant. Fernandez declined to do so, announcing that Argentina would take a neutral position such as Uruguay and Mexico did. In addition, the new President’s support for the former Brazilian President Lula increased the tension with Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, which is Argentina’s main trade partner.
Also, on November 20th, 2019, the local press reported that the President met with Israel’s Ambassador to Argentina, Galit Ronen, and told her that he was considering to cancel the recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In addition, the new Minister of Security, Sabina Frederic, was quoted as saying that “terrorism is a NATO’s countries problem, not ours,” stating that the recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization was a result of American pressure. Israel viewed these declarations with concern and decided not to send representatives to the inaugural ceremony of Fernandez, alleging the lack of an official government in the country.
With this new leadership, Argentina chose a populist model focused on the redistribution of wealth, the internal market, and the return to the “anti-imperialist” axis. The robust government bodies, with lots of bureaucracy, influential syndicates, and significant tax pressure, make the country less attractive.
For all these reasons, a decline in Argentina’s volume of global trade is expectable, including its bilateral trade with Israel, (over 500 Million USD) as well as a reduction in opportunities for Israeli companies wishing to enter or increase their investments in the country.
However, and despite the direction of the new Argentine administration, multiple countries of the region have expressed their interest in Israeli technologies, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. In the following articles, I will write about these business opportunities for Israeli companies