In a sign the Foreign Ministry may be switching its focus from dealing primarily with the Palestinians to more "classic" functions involving the rest of the world, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon will travel to South America next week to attend the meeting of the Organization of American States.
Ayalon’s visit to Honduras will be a prelude to a visit there later this year by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has also said he will travel to Africa by the end of the year.
Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post that in the last few years Israel had not paid sufficient attention to Latin America, and that his trip was the beginning of efforts to rectify that situation.
He said that Israel had numerous business and political interests in South America, one of which is to "raise the flag" regarding inroads made both by Iran and Hizbullah in the region.
He pointed out that Hizbullah has "sleeper cells" in South America, including those believed to be responsible for the bombings in the early 1990s of the embassy and the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires.
Senior diplomatic officials said that devoting time to South America and Africa represented a significant change in the Foreign Ministry’s direction, noting that it had been years since an Israeli foreign minister had traveled to either continent.
"In the last few years the foreign minister was mortgaged to the peace process, and the classic activities of the ministry – building relations with countries in South American and Africa – were abandoned," one senior official said.
Perhaps because Lieberman had little faith in the future of the peace process, he said, he was interested in focusing more on bilateral ties with smaller countries that might not be that involved in the diplomatic process, but with whom good, strong relations were very important.
Another official, however, took a somewhat different view, saying that Lieberman was indeed focusing more attention on South America and Africa than in the past, but that this was primarily due to a feeling that it was urgent to counter Iran, which was making inroads in both continents.
According to a Foreign Ministry document that was published on Ynet on Monday, Iran and Hizbullah are indeed making deep inroads into South America. According to the document, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela was not only helping Iran bypass UN Security Council economic sanctions, but also, along with Bolivia, was providing the Iranians with uranium.
According to the document, Iran moved into Latin America in 1982, through Cuba, and eventually opened a number of embassies in the region, in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Uruguay. Teheran developed extensive economic ties with these countries that continue to this day.
Chavez was also responsible for Iran’s developing ties with the leftist, anti-American bloc in Latin America made up of Bolivia, Nicaragua and – increasingly – Ecuador, according to the document.
Iran recently opened new embassies in Bolivia and Nicaragua, and Bolivia as well as Venezuela broke off diplomatic ties with Israel after Operation Cast Lead earlier this year.
Israeli concern about Teheran’s inroads into Latin America is not new, and emerged at a meeting then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni held with her visiting El Salvadoran counterpart in November, during which she warned that South America was fast becoming a platform for spreading Iranian ideology.
"Iran is searching for openings, and countries it can penetrate, to compensate for the vulnerability created by the [economic] sanctions [against it]," Livni said at the time. "We are witness to the disturbing phenomenon of Iranian infiltration into South America, so much so that Latin America has become a convenient base for spreading Iranian political and economic ideology. The strengthening of ties between South American guerrillas and the Iranian terrorism activists is plain to see."