Colombian President Iván Duque ended his first visit to Israel on Tuesday on an optimistic note, highlighting increasing business ties and siding with Israel in its Middle East conflicts.
“I enjoyed it a lot. It has been a great opportunity to tighten the bonds between Colombia and Israel, a great opportunity for both countries, and we are seeing more Israeli investors eager to go to Colombia,” Duque told Haaretz. “So that motivates me a lot and I think this is the opportunity to take this relationship to the highest peak ever.”
Duque, a former senator elected president about three years ago, was accompanied by a large contingent of ministers and businesspeople, on a trip designed to strengthen economic and security ties between the two countries. At a festive dinner for him, hosted by President Isaac Herzog on Monday, he told of his deep emotional connection to Israel.
At a welcoming ceremony for Duque, Herzog brought up the security issue, noting that Colombia is worried about Hezbollah terror cells on its border with Venezuela. Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano made headlines in Colombia this week during his visit to Israel when he said that Iran and Hezbollah are Colombia’s enemies.
President Duque, aware of the diplomatic sensitivity, discussed with Haaretz Colombia’s position vis-à-vis Iran. “We have included Hezbollah in our terrorist list. So whatever we can do to prevent Hezbollah activities, to denounce Hezbollah activities and to undertake operations that will lead to the capture of terrorist cells, we will very clearly do it,” he stressed. “Now in the case of Iran, Colombia has had diplomatic relations with Iran for a long, long time. But Colombia has also made it very clear that no country can have relationships with groups that are terrorists. So in that sense we will be the first to denounce any link that could derive from a connection between Hezbollah and any government.”
Colombia joined the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, which has 35 country representatives, in September. “We have been very clear in the council that we see the mandate of not allowing further uranium enrichment and the creation of nuclear arsenals as our mandate," Duque said.
He said he agrees with Israel’s position that Iran must not become a nuclear threshold state, but went further. “We have to prevent globally further developments of nuclear weapons,” he said. He did acknowledge he was aware that Israel “already has nuclear weapons,” but that he’s talking about the mandate inside the IAEA for all governments to have a foreign policy preventing “new nuclear arsenals in the world, and that’s based on the concept of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.”
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Duque also discussed Colombia’s anti-terror work. Colombian media outlets reported last summer that a Hezbollah operative had recruited two local assassins to murder Israeli businesspeople.
“We have been working in coordination with many authorities worldwide,” he said. “We have captured members of international terrorist cells in Colombia. Just a few days ago, we captured an ISIS member. Six months ago, we captured two persons who were presumably linked to Hezbollah, planning terrorist activities in Colombia. And we do this in very open and real-time cooperation.”
Dugue said Colombian agencies cooperate openly with other countries. “We received information about possible movements of Hezbollah members in Colombia and we acted accordingly. We had the operation on the ground and captured those two people,” he said. “The information we got … was that they could be plotting an attack against Israeli facilities or Jewish religious facilities in Colombia. That’s why we were able to capture these two people with very strong cooperation and with the work of our intelligence and police.”
Colombia does not intend to move its embassy to Jerusalem, but Duque opened an innovation center in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Some see this step as a quiet signal of Colombia’s readiness to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But the president downplayed this idea. “The discussion about an embassy is not really a priority for us,” he said. “Our priority is to strengthen relations with Israel and take them to the next level.”
At the same time, Duque made several gestures to Israel’s capital. “You know, I’m visiting Jerusalem today, I’m staying at the King David Hotel, I prayed at the Western Wall,” he said. “I want to honor this beautiful and historical site in many ways. The most important consideration in opening our Jerusalem office is that Jerusalem has also become an innovation center for Israel, especially the Innovation Authority. For us, it’s an opportunity to be close to innovation decisions that have been taken and also…[to apply] best-practice examples from this authority to Colombia.”
Duque said he hopes the free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel that went into effect last year will allow Colombia to triple its exports to Israel and double Israeli investment in Colombia. He also said he looks forward to three-way cooperation between Israel, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates.
“My vision is as simple as this: Colombia is Israel’s number one ally in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. “Israel is a state leading in innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship and now with the Abraham Accords it’s also changing its position in the Middle East to strengthen trade. Colombia is a country following the startup nation concept, that wants to become a leader in innovation and turn itself into the Latin American Silicon Valley.”