MEXICO CITY — Economic cooperation between Israel and Mexico has been increasing, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s relationship with America’s southern neighbor has been rocky, to say the least. Even so, Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America, will almost certainly be received warmly Thursday when the largely conservative Mexican Jewish community fetes him at a gala event.
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The prime minister is visiting Argentina, Colombia and Mexico before heading for New York, where he will address the UN General Assembly. In Mexico, besides visiting the Jewish Sports Center and meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto, Netanyahu will chat with businesspeople on an Israel-Mexico panel. Since the 2000 free trade agreement between the two countries, Mexico has become Israel’s second largest Latin American trading partner after Brazil.
And there has been some notable merger-and-acquisition action between the two countries. Last year, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries bought drug maker Rimsa in a $2.3 billion deal (even if it later had to take a $900 million write-down). And last month the Mexican chemical company Mexichem said it was snapping up Netafim, an Israeli drip-irrigation power, at a company value of nearly $2 billion. Still, Latin America represents only 4 percent of Israel’s international trade, according to the BBC.
In any case, despite the increasing interconnectedness, a tweet by Netanyahu in January was met with disbelief throughout Mexico and ignited a front-page, diplomatic feud: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
In Mexico, Trump’s insistence that his southern neighbor should pay for a wall has drawn condemnation across the political divide. Ex-President Vicente Fox Quesada, one of the most vociferous opponents, tweeted last year that “Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall. #FuckingWall.”
Netanyahu’s comment thus put the country’s 40,000-strong Jewish community in a tight spot; Mexico’s Jews detest the idea of a wall as well. The community’s unconditional support for Israel was misinterpreted as support for Netanyahu’s words; the uproar of anti-Semitic sentiment on social media forced the community to make a statement, for the first time in history, condemning the Israeli prime minister.
“It’s all in the past,” says Moisés Romano Hafif, president of the umbrella organization representing Mexican Jews. Israel drafted an apology (though Netanyahu never backed out), which the Mexican government accepted, “and it was all settled as a misunderstanding,” Romano says.
According to Romano, proof of the mended relationship is that Netanyahu will be attending a private lunch at the president’s residence, Los Pinos. Equally important is the aid offered by Israel to the survivors of the 8.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the country’s south last week.
Even so, the specter of Trump continues to haunt below the Rio Grande. “As a minority, we are extremely happy that he is visiting Mexico,” Romano says, citing the large Mexican community in the United States. “It means a lot that he is stopping by on his way to the United States.”
Mexico’s hundred-year-old Jewish community is diverse — with Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Sephardim from a dozen countries or so — but politically, these Jews are conservative. According to Romano, few Mexican Jews are unhappy that Netanyahu is visiting, and “if they exist, I haven’t heard them.”
But not everyone is as thrilled to have Netanyahu visit the Jewish Sports Center, the largest and most representative institution of the Diaspora in Mexico.
“The institutionalized community believes that everything that Israel does should be met with open arms, so there’s little space for criticism. But for many, he’s a persona non grata,” José Hamra, a member of the progressive Latin American Jewish organization J-AmLat, told Haaretz.
J-AmLat, in the same vein as groups like J Street and SISO (Save Israel. Stop the Occupation), was drafting a press release urging the Mexican government to pressure Netanyahu regarding a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
But Hamra recognizes that, in the Mexican Jewish community, opponents of the visit are a minority.