“If diplomatic relations with Israel have to be suspended, we will suspend them. We do not support genocides,” said President Petro. But hours after expelling Israel’s ambassador, his government reversed course.
On Monday (Oct 16), Colombia briefly became the first nation to expel its Israeli ambassador in response to Israel’s total siege of Gaza. The move came after more than a week of verbal sparring between Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro and the Israeli Ambassador in Bogota, Gali Dagan, and just a day after the government of Israel, one of the biggest arms sellers to Colombia, announced that it was halting all “security sales” to the Andean country.
Last Friday (Oct 13), we covered the ratcheting tensions between Colombia and Israel, and by extension Washington, after Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro had refused to strongly condemn Hamas’ horrific attack against Israeli citizens on October 7. Instead, Petro had taken to Twitter to launch one broadside after another against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which at one point he compared to the Nazis’ ruthless crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
On Sunday (October 15), the Deputy Director General for Latin America at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Jonathan Peled, summoned the Colombian ambassador, Margarita Manjarez, to “deliver a reprimand” over Petro’s “hostile and antisemitic statements against the State of Israel made last week.” According to the Israeli press release, Petro’s statements “constitute support for the horrific acts of Hamas terrorists, inflame antisemitism, harm representatives of the State of Israel, and threaten the safety of the Jewish community in Colombia.”
Petro has refused to back down despite concerted pressure from Israel, the US, the Jewish community and Colombia’s political and media establishment. Last week, the US “strongly condemn[ed]” President Petro’s statements and “call[ed] on him to condemn Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, for its barbaric murder of Israeli men, women and children,” all to no avail: Petro continues to lambast Israel while refusing to condemn Hamas.
On Saturday, he even stated that “Hamas was created by Mossad to divide the Palestinian people and have an excuse to punish them” — a claim that was widely ridiculed by Colombian media and politicians despite having more than a grain of truth to it. As the Wall Street Journal reported in its 2009 article, How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas, “Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged [Hamas] as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.”
In 2019, Netanyahu himself told his fellow Likud members in the Knesset:
Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.
The Israeli ambassador, Dagan, responded to Petro’s tweet with a sarcastic jibe that partly backfired — at least among those aware of the role Israel has played in arming and training Colombia’s paramilitary groups (more on that later):
It is true, Mr. President Gustavo Petro, as you wrote in this tweet, indeed #Hamas is an invention of the Mossad. However, I would like to share additional information with you from our intelligence services, which are among the best in the world: The Elders of Zion founded the Clan del Golfo. There are still Jews, with large, aquiline noses, who command the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Tel Aviv’s next step was to suspend all “security exports” to Colombia in response to its president’s “anti-Semitic” statements. Outside of the US, Israel is the Colombian military’s main weapons supplier. But if the move was supposed to bring Petro back into line, it had, if anything, the opposite effect. Petro’s immediate response was the following statement (translation and comments in parenthesis by yours truly), which includes accusations of Israeli involvement in atrocities during Colombia’s dirty wars:
If we have to suspend foreign relations with Israel, we will suspend them. We do not support genocides.
You do not insult the Colombian president.
I call on Latin America to show real solidarity with Colombia. And if it is not capable, it will be history that will have the last word, as it did in the great Chaco war.
Neither the Yair Kleins nor the Raifal Eithans (NC: two people we will discuss later on) will be able to say what the history of peace in Colombia is like. They unleashed massacres and genocide in Colombia.
To the people of Israel, I ask them to help bring about peace in Colombia and… in Palestine and the world.
That was on Sunday. On Monday, Petro followed through with his threat — though it was Colombia’s foreign minister, Álvaro Leyva Durán, who actually carried it out, albeit not very smoothly or for very long.
After posting a tweet lambasting the Israeli ambassador for his “mindless boorishness” toward Colombia’s president, Leyva Durán asked Dagan to “apologise and leave”. Within minutes, the story had gone viral: Colombia, until recently widely considered the “Israel of South America,” had expelled Israel’s ambassador. An hour later, Leyva Durán tweeted: “No sensible person can applaud this scorched earth policy no matter where it comes from. It violates the dignity of the human person. Kills innocents.”
But two hours later, the foreign minister pulled a bizarre 180 degree turn, stating, again on Twitter/X, that he had not actually ordered Dagan’s expulsion after all but was instead merely insisting that respect be shown for Colombia’s president. An hour later, he tweeted: “Relations with Israel will be maintained if this country so wishes. Our constitutional principles teach us and command us to respect international law. Something that must be two-way. Respectful relations between States will always be welcome.”
It was, if nothing else, an embarrassing illustration of the dangers of conducting high-stakes international diplomacy on social media platforms. It is not clear why the Petro government made such a dramatic climbdown — and what’s more, on the most public of global stages — but I will try to hazard a guess.
Three Possible Reasons
Possibility number one: the Petro government changed course due to fears of the potential economic consequences. As previously mentioned, Israel had already suspended all military trade with Colombia, including its exports of air defense systems, cybersecurity systems, surveillance systems and other weapons products (KC-767 refueling tankers, Hermes drones, Galil rifles, Spike missiles, Python, Nimrod, Kfir fighter jets…). What if Tel Aviv were to halt all trade with Colombia? The Andean country exports around $1 billion of products, including coal, coffee and flowers, to Israel — a lot of money for a mid-sized Latin American economy.
Another possible reason is that Petro, after calling on other Latin American countries to follow his lead and join Colombia’s boycott of Israel, realised that he was effectively on his own — save, of course, for the four LatAm countries that already severed their diplomatic ties with the Jewish state long ago (Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua).
Tellingly, when Russia tabled a UN Security Council resolution on Monday calling for an “immediate, durable, and fully respected humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza,” Lula’s Brazil was one of the six countries that abstained. So, too, was Ecuador. Four countries — the US, the UK, France, all permanent UNSC members, and US neocolony Japan — voted against the resolution while five voted in favour (China, Gabon, Mozambique, the UAE and Russia). Most Latin American countries, including Brazil and Mexico, are trying to walk a neutral line on the conflict even as Israel continuously escalates its campaign of collective punishment against Gaza.
But there could be another, more sinister reason for the Colombian government’s dramatic climbdown: Israel and/or its senior partner in (war) crime, the US, threatened to create serious security problems in Colombia, which itself is trying to put behind it a 52-year civil war. Colombia is also home to dozens of US military bases, according to School of Americas Watch. As the Mexican-Lebanese geopolitical analyst Alfredo Jalife warned on learning of Petro’s expulsion of Dagan, “be careful, Petro! [The Israelis] could organise a coup. They control Colombia’s spyware and train its soldiers and paramilitaries…”.
Which brings us to the two Israelis Petro mentioned in the quote above: Yair Klein and Raifal Eithan. Klein was a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army who went on to set up his own security company. That company’s clients included Lebanese militiamen, African guerrillas and Colombian drug traffickers. From BBC Mundo:
“It was he who taught the Medellín Cartel to operate remote-controlled bombs,” Pablo Elías González, a former head of special investigations at the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, told BBC Mundo in 2008.
And after giving military training to the “militias” of drug traffickers, Klein went on to work with armed men recruited by several local landowners to defend themselves against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, who, in the end, would become the first combatants of the AUC.* The Israeli mercenary, however, has offered different and contradictory versions in the past.
In an interview given to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, reproduced by the newspaper El Colombiano in June 2000, the former military man said that he had traveled to Colombia at the invitation of representatives of the United States government.
“I was in Colombia at the invitation of the Americans, period. Everything that the United States cannot do, because it is prohibited (…), it does (…) through others,” he said on that occasion.
Later, in an interview with Caracol Television, he claimed to have traveled to Colombia at the invitation of the National Police itself.
In the early 1980s, a contingent of soldiers from the Colombia Battalion “… one of the worst violators of human rights in the Western Hemisphere, received training in the Sinai Desert by some of the worst violators of human rights in the Middle East,” American researcher Jeremy Bigwood told Mexico’s La Jornada in 2008. Two of Colombia’s most bloodthirsty paramilitary leaders, Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, were among the early participants.
As for Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad chief who had courted fame for leading the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, he was hired by the Colombian President Virgilio Barco (1986-90) to help end the guerrilla conflict in the country. His involvement in Colombia’s civil war was kept secret for 36 years, for obvious reasons: one of Eitan’s recommendations, which was enthusiastically embraced by Barco, was to exterminate the political leaders of the Patriotic Union (UP), the left-wing party that emerged from a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla.
What followed was a brutal years-long assassination campaign that took the lives of 3,122 members of UP, including two presidential candidates, five sitting congressmen, 11 deputies, 109 councilors, several former councilors, 8 current mayors, 8 former mayors and thousands of other activists. According to data presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the total number of victims is more than 6,000, including murders, disappearances, torture, forced displacements and other human rights violations.
During this period of fragile peace Colombia may no longer be at war with itself, but its security ties with Israel are — or at least were until recently — stronger than ever. As readers may recall, in 2021 a nationwide strike against the Ivan Duque government’s highly controversial neoliberal policies (privatisation of pensions, elimination of public healthcare, reduction of minimum wage, the imposition of a 19% tax on staple foods) was met with ferocious repression by Colombia’s Israeli-trained security forces, all using Israeli-made weapons. The result: at least 48 deaths.
For Colombia’s military and police forces, Israel is a key ally. This is almost certainly one of the main reasons why Colombian President Gustavo Petro has chosen to tread carefully, especially as he tries to broker a lasting peace in a country that has suffered one of the longest civil wars of modern history. Another reason can be found in the seven formal US military bases on its soil as well as allegedly dozens of so-called “quasi-bases.” As if that were not enough of a threat, the US is also amassing troops in neighbouring Peru and Ecuador, where the 35-year old son of the country’s richest man, a banana plantation owner, just became president.
That said, the diplomatic crisis between Colombia and Israel is still far from over. The Petro government is demanding respect in its diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv while Tel Aviv is demanding nothing short of total condemnation of Hamas’ acts as well as total support for whatever the IDF does in retaliation, no matter how criminal. As we saw in its diplomatic clash with Spain on Monday, the Israel government is demanding total support from not just every ostensibly democratic government but also every individual member of each government. In the end, that is not a feasible policy.
* The AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), is an organisation created in April 1997 to consolidate disparate counterguerrilla paramilitary units that had emerged in several areas of the country since the 1980s. It has been accused of doing a lot of the dirty work for the Colombian military, such as murdering peasants and labour union leaders. According to Colombia’s Truth Commission, Colombia’s paramilitary groups were responsible for 205,028 victims (45%) of the 450,664 people who lost their lives as a result of the armed conflict between 1985 and 2018.