Israel and Argentina Look to Improve Ties by Avoiding Iranian 'Elephant'

Amid a visit by a top delegation from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem, the two countries are trying to focus on economic areas where they share common ground rather than 'problematic' issues such as Iran and the Palestinians

Pablo Mendez Shiff
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Argentina's Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and President Alberto Fernandez greeting supporters in Buenos Aires in March.
Argentina's Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and President Alberto Fernandez greeting supporters in Buenos Aires in March.Credit: MATIAS BAGLIETTO/REUTERS
Pablo Mendez Shiff

When Alberto Fernández was elected president of Argentina in October 2019, bringing the country’s left back to power after four years of a conservative government led by the pro-Israel Mauricio Macri, some officials in Jerusalem feared for the future of Argentina-Israel relations.

Their main concern was that the new Argentine government would follow in the footsteps of other left-wing administrations in South America and adopt a very critical approach toward Israel.

Two and a half years on, those worries seem like a distant memory. Last month, a delegation of senior officials from the Fernández government arrived in Israel, where they were warmly received by some of the most influential ministers in Naftali Bennett’s government.

Their trip followed a visit by Fernández himself in January 2020. This was the first sign that the two countries, who enjoyed a close relationship under Macri’s rule, were not on a collision course despite the change of government.

Perhaps the most prominent member of April’s delegation was Eduardo de Pedro, Argentina’s interior minister and a political ally of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – Fernández’s powerful vice president and herself a former president from 2007 to 2015.

Many of the Israeli fears related to Fernández’s election victory in practice related to Kirchner’s years in power, during which the two countries experienced several crises. “We see this trip as a good sign,” de Pedro told Haaretz during a visit to Kibbutz Magal in central Israel.

The visit focused on practical cooperation in fields such as agriculture, trade and technology. It included three members of the Argentine cabinet and seven governors of different regions across the country. Some on the Argentine left criticized the politicians who took part in the visit, while there was surprise among conservatives that the left-wing government was trying to bolster ties with Israel (a position associated more with the Argentine right).

Despite the positive atmosphere between the two sides, there were still several issues that were left undiscussed in order not to spoil the successful visit: the Palestinians; Argentina’s ties with Iran; and the death of Jewish-Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman in January 2015, during his investigation into an alleged Argentinian cover-up of the 1994 bombing of the country’s largest Jewish community center, in Buenos Aires.

Speaking with Haaretz, de Pedro said it was time to move on: “I think that this visit, as well as the previous visit by President Fernández, should not be contaminated by the fake news of the 2015 election.”

Without saying so explicitly, he was referring to accusations from Macri’s camp that Kirchner was involved in Nisman’s suspicious death, which she has strongly denied. An Argentine police report concluded in 2017 that Nisman, who was found shot to death in his apartment, had been murdered – though no suspect has ever been caught. The open questions surrounding the death continue to be the subject of intense debate in legal and political circles in Argentina.

Protesters calling for justice for public prosecutor Alberto Nisman, after his murder in January 2015. Credit: אי־פי

Trying to put aside the disagreements and focus instead on issues the two countries see eye to eye on, Israeli ambassador to Argentina Galit Ronen called the delegation “very significant.” She added that there had not been such a large-scale mission from Argentina to Israel in many years. “To get seven governors and three ministers to align their schedules – it’s ‘Mission: Impossible.’ But we managed it. Those who do not believe in miracles cannot survive in the Middle East,” she said, smiling.

“The relations of Argentina and Israel are generally friendly and are not dependent on who’s in government because it’s between the states,” Ronen explained. She mentioned a memorandum signed between Argentina and Iran in 2013, under Kirchner, as one area of disagreement, noting that Israel “thinks it was a mistake.” Yet she remains optimistic that the two countries can overcome what separates them and find ways to cooperate and strengthen their relationship based on joint interests.

It was clear that at least for the duration of the delegation’s visit, both sides were interested in trying to minimize past disagreements. De Pedro, for example, in his conversation with Israeli President Isaac Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem, spoke mostly about how cooperation between the two countries on agriculture can help feed the world.

Raanan Rein, the Elias Sourasky professor of Latin American and Spanish history at Tel Aviv University, said Argentina’s ties to Iran had cemented “the suspicions held by Israeli politicians and diplomats toward the left in Argentina. It supposedly proved that the concerns were justified. I believe there was much misunderstanding, as far as the motives behind the decision of the Argentine government to sign the Iran MOU. I think that the idea was, in part at least, inspired by the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran. It wasn’t an expression of support of the fundamentalist Islamist regime of Iran.”

He added, however, that some of Israel’s early concerns about the Fernández government “had to do with the fact that for many years Israeli foreign policy was kidnapped by Benjamin Netanyahu. The view was that any right-wing, reactionary government would be in favor of Israel, and any progressive government would necessarily be hostile to Israel. And it’s only now, slowly, that Israeli diplomacy is recovering from this captivity of the Netanyahu mind-set.”

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