Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showered President Mauricio Macri with praise during his visit to Buenos Aires this week as the two sides seek to improve bilateral relations.
Netanyahu’s arrival in Buenos Aires on Monday marked the first visit by an Israeli leader to Latin America since Israel’s creation in 1948. After his stay in Argentina, where he also met with Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, he travelled on to Colombia and Mexico. He will end his trip to the Americas in New York, where he will address the UN General Assembly on September 26 and meet with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela on the sidelines of the event.
“It’s incredible that in 70 years of Israel, no prime minister visited any country in the Western Hemisphere south than the United States,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “We are beginning here the dawn of a new era and not accidentally we begin it here in Argentina.”
Netanyahu hailed Macri’s leadership, calling him “a true friend of Israel.” “Argentina and Israel speak the same language,” he added.
Both Macri and Netanyahu, who arrived with 30 Israeli businesspeople in tow, spoke of the need to forge closer ties between the nations. Argentina has the sixth-largest Jewish community outside of Israel, numbering around 200,000, with approximately two-thirds resident in Buenos Aires.
On Monday, Netanyahu met 600 members of the local Jewish community at an event at the Alvear Palace Hotel, where AMIA President Agustin Zbar praised the “key moral leadership that Israel has in the world, fighting terror but under strict ethical rules.”
‘Iranian terrorism’. Terrorism was clearly on the agenda for the Israeli leader during the trip. Just an hour after arriving in Buenos Aires and being welcomed by Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, Netanyahu visited the AMIA Jewish community centre where 85 people were killed and 300 injured in 1994 in a bombing attack.
The Israeli leader held a closed-door meeting with members of the local community and participated in a ceremony to remember the victims of that attack and another bombing on the Israeli Embassy in 1992.
Vice-President Gabriela Michetti and family members of three of the four Israeli diplomats who were among the 29 victims in the attack were on hand to meet Netanyahu.
Iran is widely seen as being behind the two attacks but noone has been convicted in the courts. Israel blamed the Embassy attack on the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Argentine investigators accused five former Iranian officials of sponsoring Hezbollah’s attack on the community centre but Iran denied involvement.
“Iran is the one that was behind the great attacks in Buenos Aires in the 90s and is the ‘octopus of terror,’ and also Hezbollah that is sending branches (of terror) around the world, arms to Latin America as well,” Netanyahu said at the AMIA centre, according to a transcript provided by the Israeli Embassy.
The Israeli leader said it is “an obligation for all countries of culture to fight against terrorism ... and in particular, against the Iranian terrorism system.”
He returned to the theme on Tuesday during a joint press conference with President Macri, questioning the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran.
“Iran’s terror has not stopped … they have a terror machine that encompasses the entire world operating terror cells in many continents, including in Latin America,” Netanyahu said, speaking in English.
“In the case of Iran, it’s not only merely terror but the quest for nuclear weapons that concerns us and should concern the entire international community. We understand the danger of a rogue nation having atomic bombs,” he continued.
Speaking at the Casa Rosada on Tuesday, Netanyahu pointedly praised Macri’s “commitment” toward solving the two attacks.
“Argentina has suffered first hand, and twice the tragic effects of extremist violence. And we condemn terrorism in all of its forms and intend to work alongside Israel and our international partners to fight and prevent this scourge,” said Netanyahu.
“We know, without a doubt, that Iran and Hezbollah were backing up and in fact initiating these attacks,” he added.
Israel “will continue to act resolutely to countering Iran’s terror and terror in general” along with its partners in Latin America and in North America, he said.
Netanyahu’s praise of the his Argentine counterpart’s “commitment” to solving the crimes was seen by some as a reference to the death of Alberto Nisman, the late special prosecutor who was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in his apartment on January 18, 2015.
Nisman, who was investigating the AMIA bombing, had been scheduled to appear in Congress the next day to present allegations that former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had sought to orchestrate a secret deal to cover up Iranian officials’ alleged role in the attack. Fernandez de Kirchner has denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, theories have flourished around Nisman’s mysterious death. Some people believe Nisman killed himself, others say he was murdered because he was a threat to the Argentine and Iranian governments. Macri, who has met with Nisman’s family and his former wife, says resolving the death of the prosecutor and the bombings remain among his government’s top priorities.
Unrest. While DAIA, an umbrella organisation for the country’s Jewish community, welcomed the visit and said it represented a “rapprochement between Argentina and Israel,” some relatives of victims of the 1994 bombing refused an invitation to the Netanyahu event.
“Netanyahu did not come to commemorate the attack, but to increase business,” said Diana Malamud, who heads a group called Active Memory.
“In these 23 years (since the bombing) Israel has been an observer, like any other country,” and did not honestly help “search for the truth” behind the attack, she said.
Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was also critical.
“Not only is he himself accused of committing crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for killing civilians, bombing schools, hospitals and Palestinian mosques, but he provides protection to a repressor of the last Argentine dictatorship,” PérezEsquivel said.
Esquivel was referring to Israel’s refusal to extradite Teodoro Anibal Gauto, accused of committing crimes against humanity during Argentina’s 19761983 military dictatorship.
‘Benchmark’. For his part, President Macri vowed to intensify ties between the nations and hailed Israel’s technological progress.
“Your experience clearly is a major benchmark for us that reflects the high potential from learning from the huge progress you have made in recent years,” Macri said.
Israel is looking to expand its commercial ties with new regions and is seeking allies likely to vote in its favour at UN bodies, where it is regularly condemned over the occupation of Palestinian territories.
“There is a good opportunity to increase investment and trade,” a senior official in the Argentine Foreign Ministry said.
After the speeches, Israel’s Ambassador to Argentina Ilan Sztulman signed a series of bilateral agreements with local officials.
Earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu visited San Martín Palace and laid a wreath to honour General José de San Martín.
The Israeli leader’s visit to Latin America was timely, with his wife Sara Netanyahu potentially facing corruption charges. Last Friday, September 8, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit said he is considering charging Sara Netanyahu with graft, fraud and breach of trust for alleged overspending of over US$100,000 in public funds on private meals at the prime minister’s official residence.
The announcement is the procedural first step ahead of levelling formal charges against Sara Netanyahu. The Justice Ministry said in a statement that she would have the opportunity to plead her case at a hearing before any charges are filed.