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Faith and foreign policy: Inside Israel's battle for influence in Latin America Open in fullscreen

Charlie Hoyle

Faith and foreign policy: Inside Israel's battle for influence in Latin America

Latin America has embraced Israel as a path to Washington. [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 December, 2019

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In-depth: A rise in right-wing populism and the growing influence of evangelical Christians have galvanised Israel's influence across Latin America, ending an unprecedented era of support for the Palestinian cause.
Brandishing an oversized bible, Jeanine Anez declared herself interim president of Bolivia last month after Evo Morales resigned and fled to Mexico following a disputed election result that triggered weeks of street protests.

Seeking to undo nearly 14 years of socialist rule under Morales, one of the first changes made by the new right-wing religious conservative leadership was to restore relations with Israel, a decade after they were ruptured over a deadly 2009 military operation in the Gaza Strip.

With a sharp swing to the right, the new interim government has sought to put its own ideological stamp on Bolivia, severing ties with Morales' leftist allies Venezuela and Cuba while strengthening relations with the United States.

Read more: Bolivia restores diplomatic ties with Israel

But the immediate outreach to Israel represents much more than just changing political realities in the South American country.

It symbolises how a recent rise in right-wing populism, and the growing influence of the evangelical Christian movement, have galvanised Israel's influence across Latin America, ending what had been an unprecedented era of support for the Palestinian cause.

Latin America and Palestine: A 'golden decade'

Morales, a socialist and Bolivia's first indigenous president, cut ties with Israel in 2009 at the height of a 'golden decade' in Latin American relations with Palestine.

Protesters in Chile demonstrate against Israel's 2014 war on Gaza. [Getty]

In the late 1990s, a so-called 'pink tide' swept across Latin America ushering in a wave of leftist governments, a groundswell of post-authoritarian democratisation challenging neoliberal policies and mass inequality.

By 2005, roughly three-quarters of South America's 350 million people were ruled by left-leaning presidents, who had been elected in the previous six years.

This leftward shift led to a succession of recognitions of the State of Palestine between 2008 and 2013. With the exception of Mexico and Panama, every country in the region now officially recognises Palestine. 

Read more: Power and politics: Israel makes new inroads into Africa

The dramatic recalibration of pro-Palestine attitudes came after decades of historically friendly Israel ties.

In the United Nations partition plan of 1947 , 13 of the 33 votes in favour came from Latin America. Over the intervening decades, the Palestinian cause found global support in left-leaning anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements, but most Latin American governments, who threw off colonial shackles in the 19th century, were not overtly sympathetic.

In the late 1990s, a so-called 'pink tide' swept across Latin America ushering in a wave of leftist governments, a groundswell of post-authoritarian democratisation challenging neoliberalism and mass inequality

Burgeoning Israel ties were further cemented as authoritarian - and largely US-backed - military dictatorships swept across the continent in the 1970s and 1980s, enjoying warm relations with Israel and relying on Tel Aviv's weapons, counterinsurgency training and intelligence technology.

But as the 'pink tide' swept in Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, and Lula da Silva in Brazil, support for Palestine became a keystone of the region's foreign policy agenda.

Jeanine Anez declared herself interim president of Bolivia last month [Getty]

State and grassroots solidarity with Palestinians quickly extended to Israeli military offensives, with Venezuela joining Bolivia in cutting ties during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, while Nicaragua halted relations following the Mavi Marmara assault a year later, which targeted a flotilla of activists trying to break the Israeli naval siege on Gaza.

During Israel's 2014 assault on Gaza, there was a chorus of condemnation from Latin America as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador lambasted the war and recalled their ambassadors.

The political pendulum would soon swing rightward again, however, the result of a region-wide economic crisis, a series of corruption scandals involving left-wing parties, and a changing global order.

"Now we might see a counter wave of some of these countries instead upgrading relations with Israel. It reflects, of course, the rise of a global right-wing movement," Anders Persson, a researcher at the Centre for European Politics, told The New Arab.

Coupled with Israel's strategic outreach to the continent, by 2019 Latin America had embraced Tel Aviv, both as a result of economic and political interests, and also as a path to Washington and the administration of Donald Trump, the most pro-Israel administration in US history.

A new political order was reflected in Tel Aviv's most concrete diplomatic coup: Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017

Trump and Israel: The rise of the right

In September 2017,  Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister to visit South America, touring Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, and Mexico and boasting of "a new era in relations between Israel and Latin America."

Read more: Trump's Jerusalem decision will end all hope of
Palestinian-Israeli peace [Getty]

The visit, the first of four in the coming years, was part of a decade-long diplomatic strategy to normalise ties in Africa, the Gulf and Asia, and dovetailed auspiciously with a right-wing shift across the continent.

"Over the past few years, Israel has been deepening its political and economic relations in Latin America," Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.

"Far more than just pure economics, these relations are above all political wins for Israel, and its embattled Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu."

Part of a 'conservative wave' in the mid-2010s, new right-wing leaders declared support for Israel to break ranks with their left-wing predecessors, bolster security cooperation and strengthen ties with the US. 

Part of a 'conservative wave' in the mid-2010s, new right-wing leaders declared support for Israel to break ranks with their left-wing predecessors, bolster security cooperation and strengthen ties with the US

This new political order was reflected in Tel Aviv's most concrete diplomatic coup: Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017.

A swathe of Latin American countries, despite having had recognised Palestine only years earlier, subsequently rebuffed a UN resolution condemning the foreign policy move.

Argentina, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico all abstained on a motion declaring the status of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as "null and void', while Guatemala and Honduras voted against it, two of only nine countries.

Read more: Guatemala follows the US, opens Jerusalem embassy

Both Central American countries, financially dependent on Washington and worried about Trump's threats to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over US-bound migration, saw Israel as a route to the White House.

Six months after Trump's controversial announcement, Guatemala became only the second country after the United States to open a new embassy in Jerusalem, with president Jimmy Morales attending the ceremony.

In September this year, Honduras opened a trade mission with diplomatic status in Jerusalem, in what president Juan Orlando Hernandez declared as a first step towards moving the country’s embassy.

An evangelical Christian marches against Guatemala's decision to back Palestinian statehood in 2011. [Getty]

Evangelical political power

Beyond economic and security ties, the growing influence of evangelical Christians has also played a key role in the right-wing political shift in Latin America, and support for Israel.

Evangelical worshippers account for more than 20 percent of the region's population. Sixty years ago, they barely represented three percent. Once marginal in Latin America, they now exert significant political clout. 

Read more: Guns and Christians: Explaining Bolsonaro's Israel embassy move

"Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras, among the first to align with Trump’s new policy on Jerusalem, are countries where the Evangelical churches now represent from 25 to 40 percent of the population," Cecilia Baeza, an Al-Shabaka policy analyst, told The New Arab.

"These churches play a central role in disseminating Christian Zionism and are increasingly active in the political realm - something already established in Guatemala and Brazil but completely new in Bolivia."

Aligned with the political right, evangelists are staunchly pro-Israel and believe that the return of Jews to the Holy Land was in accordance with a Biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 

In both Honduras and Guatemala around 40 percent of the population is Evangelical, and recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital was an easy domestic win.

Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras, among the first to align with Trump's new policy on Jerusalem, are countries where the Evangelical churches now represent from 25 to 40 percent of the population
-Cecilia Baeza, Al-Shabaka policy analyst

The influence of an evangelical voting base was also evident in Brazil, where one of the region's most dramatic foreign policy shifts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place.

Under Lula da Silva, a former union leader, the country became the largest contributor to the UN's refugee agency for Palestine (UNRWA), and funded multimillion dollar reconstruction projects in Gaza and across the occupied West Bank.

The impeachment of his successor in 2016, Dilma Rousseff, was driven by the evangelical caucus, a coalition of increasingly powerful ultra-conservatives legislators. They also provided key backing for the election of far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro.

Read more: Guns and Christians: Explaining Bolsonaro's Israel embassy move

Abandoning Brazil's pro-Palestine, pro-Iran position, Bolsonaro was inaugurated in January 2019 and has quickly consolidated his pro-Israel credentials.

During his election campaign he pledged to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem as part of building support among the Evangelical community - the second largest in the world behind the United States. Around 70 percent of the 40 million-strong population voted for him.

"I love Israel," he declared in Hebrew during a March 2019 visit to the country, vowing to open an official diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem.

Visiting Israel earlier this week to inaugurate the mission, his son, senior lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, said his father intended to make good on the pledge: "He told me that for sure - it's a commitment - he's going to move the embassy to Jerusalem".

It is also seen as a zero-sum game where it is difficult to have good relations with both Israel and Palestine at the moment given the polarization in global politics
-Anders Persson, researcher at the Centre for European Politics

'Loss for Palestine'

Denounced by the right-wing as an 'ideological' issue, pro-Palestine support has waned rapidly amid the emergence of right-wing populists in Latin America who seek favour with a pro-Israel Trump administration.

The sustainability of such governments, however, is as yet undetermined in a politically volatile region.

A child in Santiago, Chile waves a Palestinian flag during a rally against Israel's military
offensive in Gaza [Getty]

Argentina, for example, elected a centre-left president in October who signalled a softened approach to Hezbollah, while Mexico elected a left wing leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in a landslide 2018 victory.

Bolivia's radical break from foreign policy under Evo Morales, however, underscores the importance of the ongoing battle for diplomatic and public relations victories.

"Both Israel and Palestine value very much each and every country, even the smallest, that upgrades relations with them," Persson told The New Arab.

"It is also seen as a zero-sum game where it is difficult to have good relations with both Israel and Palestine at the moment given the polarisation in global politics," he adds.

"Every vote counts in global forums such as the UNGA".

For Palestinians, despite active grassroots social movements that strongly support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the turn to the right in Latin America, coupled with a pro-Israel Trump administration, will impact support in the multilateral arena and deprive them of access to governments.

"The region's shift in favour of Israel is a serious loss for Palestinians," Baeza says.

Charlie Hoyle is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter @CharlieCHoyle

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