Q&A with Ilan Sztulman, Israel’s Ambassador to Argentina
Q: Relations between Argentina and Israel have vastly improved in recent years, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Buenos Aires in 2017, and Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti’s trip to Jerusalem last year. What explains the strengthening diplomatic relations? Has the friendlier political relationship created commercial opportunities for both countries? Is Argentina considering moving its embassy to Jerusalem, as Brazil reportedly plans to do?
A: Bilateral relations between both countries have strengthened and improved greatly in the last few years. This happened within the framework of Argentina’s new political opening to the world and its new approach to western liberal democracies in recent years. As a result, business opportunities have opened up. Just to give an example, Israel modified its internal regulations to allow Argentina a longer shipping time for its meat exports. This simple act enhanced Argentina’s possibility of exporting meat products to Israel.
Regarding the location of the Embassy of Argentina in Israel, it is a sovereign decision of the Argentine government. In the same way, it is Israel’s sovereign decision to decide where to locate our capital, and ours is in Jerusalem.
Q: It appears Argentina is not immune from the global rise in anti-Semitism. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery, a violent attack on the country’s chief rabbi and anti-Semitic slurs chanted at professional soccer matches. Last year, anti-Semitism was the most commonly cited complaint to the Buenos Aires prosecutor’s office. How should Argentina fight religious intolerance? Is the Argentine government doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, and to protect Jewish institutions?
A: Anti-Semitism is increasing throughout the world. After the great economic crisis that affected the whole world a few years ago, false nationalisms and demagogic movements were looking for a common enemy in order to unify different sectors of society, as Carl Schmitt would have predicted. Regrettably, Jews were again the scapegoat. But we will not let history be repeated, since we have learned from experience, and because the remembrance of the Holocaust remains alive. The Argentine government, as well as the Jewish institutions that keep a very fluid dialogue with other communities in Argentina, are actively working to combat anti-Semitism.
Q: Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will stand trial for her role in allegedly covering up Iran’s participation in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, where 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. Her successor, Mauricio Macri, discarded a controversial agreement with Iran for a joint investigation into the bombing. As the 25th anniversary of the bombing approaches in July, are you satisfied with Argentina’s renewed efforts to hold Iran accountable for the AMIA bombing? Could the international community do more to support Argentina’s efforts to bring the bombing suspects to justice?
A: It is important that the current government terminated Argentina’s agreement with Iran. It was a remarkable step that showed good will and intention, but it is not enough. Nowadays, Argentina is creating its own register of terrorist organizations, which as of today does not exist. That is the reason it is very difficult for the national authorities to combat terrorists. This step, together with other measures, such as the trial in absentia of the AMIA bombers, will be fundamental to strengthen Argentina’s investigations of the AMIA and Israeli Embassy terrorist attacks. Regarding international assistance, we do see an increase in international cooperation with Argentina in all fields concerning the fight against terror, but unfortunately, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its murderous puppet Hezbollah are still not recognized as terror organizations by all countries. This allows them to develop various ways to foment terror, and finance it.
Q: The 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing has also drawn renewed attention to terrorism challenges in Latin America, including alleged Hezbollah fundraising in the Tri-Border Area. How serious is that threat? Is there adequate coordination between Argentine, Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities? Is U.S. engagement important to identifying and confronting terrorist activities in South America?
A: It is public knowledge that Hezbollah has fundraising operations in the Triple Frontier. Paraguay, at the request of Argentina’s anti-money laundering authorities, recently arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat for suspected Hezbollah fundraising. Security coordination between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay has improved in recent times, but the path is long and any cooperation in the fight against international crime is always important. We are working very hard to make this cooperation bear fruit, and we are already having good results.
Q: Last June, the Argentine national team cancelled a pre-World Cup friendly against Israel that was to be held in Jerusalem, amid criticism from Palestinian officials and fans. Were you disappointed by that decision? Has the politicization of sports complicated Israel’s efforts to conduct sports diplomacy?
A: I am disappointed, because there was great excitement among Israelis to watch the Argentine team. We are big fans. We understand that the threats they suffered from the Palestine Football Federation and anti-Israel activists influenced their decision; FIFA later sanctioned the president of the Palestinian federation for the threats. We regret that the Palestinians politicized a soccer match. Sports must unite people and not be used to separate them. But this has not affected the good bilateral relationship between the countries, or between our peoples.
Q: In the “OMLET” region, as Latin America is known in Israel’s foreign ministry, how important is Israel’s relationship with Argentina? As the influence of the Venezuela-led ALBA bloc has diminished, and not only in Argentina, has Israel enjoyed better relations throughout Latin America?
A: Argentina is one of the leading countries in Latin America, and it is very important for us. As with Argentina, Israel’s bilateral relations with several countries in the region have strengthened in recent years. The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela worries us a lot and we advocate for a humanitarian solution for its inhabitants. We have recognized President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state. Needless to say, Iran and Hezbollah are among the few countries and groups that still support the government of Nicolás Maduro.
Q: Have you tried the new kosher choripán at the Bombonera, the storied stadium of the Boca Juniors soccer club?
A: I was at the Bombonera two years ago, but I have not had the pleasure to try its kosher choripán. I would be happy to go back to taste it. It is not only the kosher choripán, but also the whole atmosphere that is lived around a soccer match in Argentina. A very important event was the commemoration that took place at the River Plate stadium to honor relatives of the victims and survivors of the bombing attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992.
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