Israeli officials are keeping quiet on Wednesday after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, unlike the United States and other countries - includng Iran - that have reached out to Caracas.
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At this stage, Jerusalem is simply following developments in the Latin American country. Foreign Ministry officials hope Venezuelan-Israeli ties will improve but say the change won't happen in the short term. Still, the two main candidates to become Venezuela's next president are more favorable toward Israel.
"We had been preparing for some time for the possibility of Chavez's death. We have looked at ways to open discussion channels with the new leadership, but it's still early and we're keeping a low profile," said a source at the Foreign Ministry.
"Ultimately there are wide-ranging grounds for cooperation between the two countries, and Venezuela will benefit much more from a relationship with Israel than one with Iran. There is no reason the relationship with Venezuela won't resemble [Israel's] with Ecuador – there is criticism and there are disputes, but there is also cooperation."
Chavez was one of Israel's main adversaries around the globe and the most prominent in Latin America. He based his foreign policy on opposition to the United States, a cooling of relations with Israel and a strengthening of ties with countries like Iran and Syria.
The deterioration in relations occurred in part during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. With Iranian and Syrian encouragement, Chavez criticized Israel more harshly than leaders whose countries had diplomatic ties with Israel.
"We feel that the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and against Lebanon is directed against us too," Chavez told Al Jazeera a week after returning from a state visit to Tehran. "This aggression is unjustified. It is perpetrated in the fascist manner of Hitler. Israel is justified in criticizing Hitler and his aggression – and we criticize this as well – but now they are doing what Hitler did to the Jews. They are killing innocent children and whole families."
During the Second Lebanon War, Chavez downgraded Venezuela's diplomatic relations with Israel and recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv. Israel's foreign minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, then recalled ambassador Shlomo Cohen to Jerusalem for consultations "in light of [Chavez's] outrageous defamatory remarksagainst the State of Israel."
In January 2009, during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Venezuela broke off diplomatic ties with Israel. Chavez continued to excoriate Israel and said "the Holocaust – that is what is happening right now in Gaza." He later expelled all Israeli diplomats from Caracas. In response, Jerusalem expelled Venezuela's diplomats from Israel.
In recent years, Israel has closely followed the warming between Chavez and Iran. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iranian president in 2005, he developed strong personal ties with Chavez. During Ahmadinejad's first two years in office, Chavez visited Tehran six times; he then visited regularly until he became ill with cancer. Ahmadinejad and senior Iranian officials became regular guests in Caracas.
Israeli officials have said Venezuela has become an Iranian forward operating base in Latin America. The Foreign Ministry and the Mossad have kept an eye on the Tehran-Damascus-Caracas air route that has carried thousands of Iranians for several years now. These Iranians were ostensibly traveling to work at Venezuela's oil installations, but Foreign Ministry officials believe that members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard were among the passengers.
Israel has claimed that Venezuela has aided Iran in getting around international sanctions. Israeli officials also suspect that in the past two years Venezuela has helped the Assad regime in Syria bypass sanctions. They also suspect that military cooperation and arms dealing is going on between Venezuela, Iran and Syria.
For example, the Spanish newspaper ABC reported in June that Venezuela had transferred to Iran several F-16 fighter planes, a model used by the United States and Israel. The transfer was intended to help the Iranians' radar and air-defense systems ahead of a possible American or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations, the paper said.
Since Caracas has broken off relations with Jerusalem the number of anti-Semitic attacks against Venezuela's small Jewish community has increased dramatically; many Jews have left the country. Only about 10,000 Jews remain in the country, about half the number in 2000.
With no Israeli diplomats in Caracas, the United States, Canada and Jewish organizations are sending messages for Jerusalem on anti-Semitism. Much of the anti-Semitism has come from Chavez's political party and is cropping up in the media, in comments by politicians and in physical attacks on Venezuelan Jews, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials said Wednesday they didn't expect a significant change in Venezuela's policy toward Israel before the next presidential election.
Chavez's political heir – vice president and former foreign minister Nicolas Maduro – is considered slightly more moderate toward Israel; he serves as a liaison to the Jewish community in the country. A few weeks ago in Venezuela he met with members of the World Jewish Congress, headed by Ronald Lauder. According to Foreign Ministry sources, Maduro did not disparage Israel.
Maduro's expected opponent, opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, has a very positive view toward Israel. One reason Capriles may be so favorable are his Jewish roots, though he defines himself as a Catholic. Capriles' maternal grandparents were Jews who fled the Holocaust to Caracas. Capriles' father is a Catholic Venezuelan with Sephardi Jewish roots. A Capriles win in the next election would probably thaw Venezuela-Israel relations.