Photo Credit: Hillel Maeir / TPS
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

by Andrew Friedman

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu leaves Sunday for a 9-day trip to South America, Mexico and the United States. The prime minister is set to hold meetings with the leaders of Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and Mexico before continuing on to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 19. Netanyahu is scheduled to return to Israel ahead of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), which begins on the night of September 20.

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Ahead of the trip, Netanyahu noted that he will become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America. He is joined by some 30 Israeli business leaders in an effort to build bilateral trade and economic ties in a variety of areas, including water technology, agriculture, technology development and more.

“We are doing here essentially what we are doing in Asia, Africa, Australia, eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the rest of the world,“ Netanyahu told the cabinet. ”This visit will strengthen economic, defense and technology ties between Israel and Latin America, and will serve as an additional prop to support Israel‘s standing on the international stage – a process that we have been overseeing systematically and successfully.“

In Buenos Aires, Netanyahu will meet with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri as well as with Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, who will travel to Buenos Aires for the meeting. He will also attend ceremonies at Embassy Square, site of the 1992 terrorist bombing at the Israeli embassy that killed 29 people, as well as the Jewish community building (AMIA), the site of a 1994 terrorist attack that killed 85.

In Bogota, Colombia, Netanyahu will meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for a short stop-over to sign a memorandum of understanding in science and a tourism cooperation agreement before continuing on to Mexico.

The trip takes place under the shadow of mounting legal and political troubles for Netanyahu at home. On Friday, Sara Netanyahu was notified she would be indicted on accusations of misusing hundreds of thousands of shekels in public funds. Over the weekend, their son Yair created a firestorm by posting a cartoon denigrating far-left Jewish philanthropist George Soros, using traditional anti-Semitic themes.

It also occurs in the aftermath of a rift between the prime minister and both the Mexican government and local Jewish community last January after Netanyahu tweeted his support for U.S. President Donald Trump‘s proposed border wall between Mexico and the United States.

”President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,“ Netanyahu said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray responded to the tweet by noting Mexico’s support for Israel on the international stage and calling on Jerusalem to apologize and “correct” its position.

In addition, Rabbi Marcelo Rittner of Comunidad Bet El in Mexico City wrote in Spanish that “As Mexicans, as Jews, we oppose the construction of a wall, but we support cooperation between the two countries [Mexico and the U.S.]“

But Netanyahu refused to apologize, downplaying the tension as a minor spat between allies. President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin said Israel was “sorry for any hurt” caused by the tweet, but experts say the issue is far from forgotten.

“The foreign ministry tried to whitewash the whole story at the time, but I can tell you that the Mexicans have not forgotten and not forgiven Netanyahu,” said Prof. Arie Kacowic, a native of Buenos Aires and a Latin America expert at the department of International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Add into the fact that Bibi (Netanyahu) has aligned himself and allowed himself to become closely identified with [U.S. President Donald] Trump. That doesn’t play well in the international community, and especially not in Latin America.”

Meanwhile, Israeli humanitarian aid organization IsraAID sent a 12-member team to Mexico this weekend to help search for survivors of the massive 8.1-magnitude earthquake that struck just before Hurricane Katia followed with gale-force winds and a deluge of rain that added the misery of floods and mudslides to the horror facing the country.

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