Israel premier's first Latin America trip sees new opportunities

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become the first sitting Israeli premier to visit Latin America, in a trip that includes Argentina 25 years after the country's embassy was bombed there.

The tour, which will see agreements boosting trade and cooperation with South American countries, is part of Israel's move to broaden the scope of its diplomacy and trade to new regions, including parts of Asia and Africa.

Netanyahu will leave Israel on Sunday to visit Argentina, Colombia and Mexico between September 11-15 before heading to New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

He will also meet with Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes while in Buenos Aires.

The "historic" visit will be the first to Latin America by a sitting Israeli premier, Netanyahu said ahead of the trip.

"We're now developing ties with Latin America -- it's a huge market in a large bloc of important states," he said at a Jewish New Year's toast with Israeli diplomats on Wednesday.

According to Netanyahu, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is less of a concern to the international community than in previous years.

"The underlying assumption was that if we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, which we wanted and still want, it will open the world to us. There's no doubt that would help, but the world is opening even without it," he said.

The visit is expected to enable further growth in commercial ties between Israel and Argentina.

"There is a good opportunity to increase investment and trade," a senior official in the Argentine foreign ministry said.

The Argentina trip will have special significance, with Netanyahu attending memorial ceremonies for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy and 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre there.

The embassy bombing killed 29 people and wounded 200, with members of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah blamed for the attack.

Eighty-five people were killed and 300 wounded in the Jewish centre bombing.

Argentine investigators accuse five former Iranian officials of ordering Hezbollah to carry out that bombing. Iran denies any involvement.

- In search of allies -

The two attacks devastated Argentina's Jewish population, the largest in Latin America at about 300,000 people.

Netanyahu will begin his trip in Argentina, where he will be from September 11-12, followed by Colombia on September 13 and Mexico on September 14.

He will meet the presidents of the three countries as well as members of their Jewish communities.

Israel is in constant search of allies who will vote in its favour at UN bodies, where it is frequently targeted over its occupation of the Palestinian territories, and such concerns have played a key role in Netanyahu's foreign relations.

The country is also a major player in the defence industry, with some $550 million in exports to Latin America in 2016.

Beyond that, its expertise in areas including high-tech, water technology and agriculture are also sought after by other nations.

Agreements with Argentina will be signed on issues including public security, customs and social insurance, Netanyahu's office said.

In addition, Argentina will make a declaration regarding the transfer of some 140,000 historic files and pictures surrounding the Second World War-era to enable further research of the Holocaust.

Israel and Colombia will sign agreements on science and tourism cooperation, and in Mexico the memorandum of understandings will be on space, aviation, communications and international development, Netanyahu's office said.

A delegation of businesspeople is set to travel with the premier.

"There are about 150 Israeli companies functioning in Mexico, over 100 in Colombia and an increasing number also in Argentina," said Modi Efraim, head of the Israeli foreign ministry's Latin America section.

An Israeli firm's spyware, however, came under scrutiny in Mexico earlier this year.

International experts investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in 2014 were targeted with the spyware after it had been sold to the government, the experts said.

It is made by a secretive Israeli firm called NSO Group, owned by US private equity firm Francisco Partners Management.