Recognizing the state of Palestine could offer Colombia political and economic benefits. However, at the same time there are serious economic and political interests at stake.
Various South American countries have recognized an independent Palestinian State as defined by the 1967 borders. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador began the wave and, according to reports, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua will soon join in this gesture. Since 1988, when Yasser Arafat declared an independent Palestinian State, over 100 countries around the world, most of them in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, recognized the State.
Yet, Colombia so far decided to abstain from following neighboring countries’ assertive and independent decisions. There are four seemingly pragmatic reasons for Colombia’s decision to alienate itself from this Latin wave.
Santos has built a special relation with Israel especially since becoming defense minister in 2006. That year Colombia obtained the exclusive rights to manufacture the Israeli Galil assault rifles; since mid-2010 Colombia also manufactures the new generation of rifles. In 2007, an Israeli firm, Global CST, owned by a former Brigadier General Yisrael Ziv, was awarded a $10 million contract to provide security advising and equipment to Colombia’s Special Forces; the firm was allegedly instrumental in the 2008 rescue of 15 hostages held by the FARC. Israel is also currently delivering 24 Kfir combat airplanes and the first aerial refueling tanker, a deal that reportedly amounts to $260 million.
Israel was one of the first countries to send aid to the victims of the recent catastrophic floods. During the second week of December, Israel, through its Defense Ministry, sent 50 tons of humanitarian aid to Colombia. An amount that Yisrael Ziv, after visiting affected areas, reported in the Israeli media was the biggest by any country up to that point and “reflect[ed] the very close relations that have developed between the two countries in recent years.”
It is this seemingly close relationship that Colombia hopes will result in Yair Klein, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army who established a private company to provide security advising and equipment to armed forces, being extradited to Colombia or at least serve prison time in his native country. Klein was sentenced in absentia in 2001 to ten years and eight months in prison by a Colombian judge for training illegal paramilitary groups.
Lastly, Colombia’s debt to the U.S. economic and military aid under Plan Colombia may pressure Bogota on following Washington’s policies towards Israel. Especially when the Obama administration has invested considerable political prestige in the current peace negotiations in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the recognition of the Palestinian State could also prove to be a pragmatic foreign policy decision potentially yielding political and economic benefits for Colombia. The reason lies in the low political costs for Colombia of such decision amid the Latin American wave, while enhancing alliances with oil-rich Muslim countries and their 1.5 billion population. There are three main benefits.
President Santos’ passionate rhetoric of defending human rights would be boosted by distancing itself from Israel. The nation is widely criticized for its human rights violations in the occupied Gaza territory and the death of nine activists on a flotilla trying to deliver humanitarian aid to that region, despite an Israeli blockade.
Colombia has already shown interest in diversifying its trade relations and luring petrodollar investments and open Middle Eastern markets to Colombian products would be enhanced. Colombia is planning to open Proexport offices (promoting Colombian non-traditional exports) in Dubai and Qatar. A political alignment with the Muslim neighbors of Israel could result in an increase of investment from the Middle East.
Furthermore, this low cost foreign policy would offer further evidence of Santos’ genuine desire to seek an independent foreign policy from U.S. interests. While Colombia has mended relation with neighboring countries as a result of economic pressures, recognizing the Palestinian State would illustrate that Colombia is on the same political and moral wavelength as its neighbors.
This decision, as most decisions in Santos’ government, will be based on pragmatic considerations. It remains an open question whether Colombia would benefit more from recognizing the Palestinian State.