Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings
In a 2013 interview with leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the comments of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who had called Colombia “the Israel of Latin America.”
“If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud. I admire the Israelis, and I would consider that as a compliment,” Santos said. The two counties do share some similarities. For one, they have both been engaged in decades-long conflicts with rebel groups – mainly the FARC and other paramilitary groups in Colombia, and Hamas and Hezbollah in Israel’s case.
Both Colombia and Israel also invest substantial resources in defense and security. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Colombia spent nearly 12 percent of its government budget on the military in 2013 – roughly $13 billion. Israel spent 13.6 percent of its budget on the military, translating to about $16 billion.
While Colombia is a much larger country than Israel, both in terms of population and geographic size, the size of each nation’s armed forces is also broadly comparable. According to the Latin American Security and Defense Network (RESDAL), Colombia has a total of 268,160 members of its armed forces (228,226 army, 32,056 navy and 7,878 air force.) A 2015 report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that Israel has a total of 176,500 active duty troops (133,000 army, 9,500 navy and 34,000 air force) plus an additional 8,000 “paramilitary” troops.
Additionally, both Colombia and Israel are large recipients of U.S. military assistance and arms sales. Data compiled by Security Assistance Monitor show that Colombia received nearly $2 billion in security aid from the U.S. from 2009 to 2014 and purchased more than $2.5 billion in weapons from the country. Israel received $17.3 billion in U.S. security assistance over the same period and purchased more than $11 billion in American weapons.
Security matters have served as the foundation of relations between Colombia and Israel for some time. A formerly secret 2008 cable signed by then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield explained that “Colombia’s defense cooperation with Israel cooled during the 1980s and 1990s, when some Israeli mercenaries reportedly helped train paramilitary forces in Colombia,” but “more recently, the [Colombian government] has engaged former Israeli military officials to help provide training and advice in the fight against the FARC and other terrorist groups.”
According to the cable, “Israeli contractors support the [Colombian government] through arms sales, military training, and the provision of strategic military planning and consulting services. The [Colombian government] has also engaged Israeli contractors to train Colombian special forces, particularly related to high value targets (HVTs).” Colombia also “subsequently contracted retired and active duty Israel Defense Force officers with special operations and military intelligence backgrounds to help in this regard. Israeli contractors have also made recommendations to the [Colombian government] on military purchases, joint military operations, and how to restructure Colombia’s intelligence services.”
Brownfield notes that “[t]here are no indications that Colombia’s foreign policy interests are shaped by the country’s Jewish community,” and that “Israel’s economic relations with Colombia remain relatively limited” outside of their defense ties. However, as Santos said upon signing a free-trade agreement with Israel in the summer of 2013, “We are clients of the Israeli industries in defense equipment. So this is an important element of our relations, but it’s not the only one.”
Haaretz explains that the Colombia-Israel relationship extends beyond each country’s domestic security concerns:
Besides being a loyal customer of Israeli defense exports, Colombia is also a partner of Israel in the geopolitical axis against Iran, particularly when it comes to the increasing closeness of its neighbor Venezuela with Tehran…[The late] Argentine…prosecutor Alberto Nisman published a report stating that Iran was building a terrorist network in Latin America, including in Colombia. But Santos contents himself with a declaration that Israel, the United States and Colombia are cooperating in the war on terror. When pressed on whether he knows about any terrorist groups in his country, he says, “I have no concrete data [about Islamic terrorism in Latin America] to say this is happening, but I have heard many stories around this issue and I of course don’t discard them.”
Israel is undoubtedly pleased to have sold some $18 million in military equipment to Colombia in the last two years, and surely welcomes Colombia’s backing in international fora, but the relationship has begun to take on a different character since the Santos government and the FARC rebels began peace negotiations in 2012.
During Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, the Colombian government, virtually alone in the region, originally condemned “acts of violence and terrorism against Israel,” but later expressed its disapproval of “the military offensive by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip” and its condolences for “victims of Israel’s retaliatory actions.” Colombia still does not officially recognize Palestinian statehood, but perhaps under pressure from its neighbors, it upgraded the status of its diplomatic presence in Palestine from “special mission” to “diplomatic mission” in December 2014.
There are also some important and growing distinctions between the security problems facing each government and the strategies they are using to address those issues. While Israel’s newly-elected leadership has not expressed a strong willingness to seek a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the conflict there, Colombia’s election last summer was largely seen as an affirmation of the public’s support for the Santos government’s continued commitment to the peace process with the FARC.
While Colombia’s military – like Israel’s – has traditionally been one of the sectors of society most resistant to “negotiating with terrorists,” top commanders of Colombia’s armed forces have recently reiterated their support for the peace process. Considering the existing relationship between Colombia and Israel on matters of security and defense, the Colombian military’s engagement in the peace talks could provide opportunities to build upon that by exchanging lessons derived from the negotiating process and eventual post-conflict settlement with their Israeli counterparts.
The issues faced by each country are highly diverse, but hopefully someday the lessons learned from Colombia’s experience in seeking a peaceful, negotiated solution to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts can serve as an example for Israel and other countries to follow.