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Special Report Venezuela, Despite Its Arab Connections, Maintains Cordial Relations with Israel

Venezuela is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an Arab-dominated body that is resolutely anti-Israel. But Venezuela, probable Arab objections notwithstanding, maintains cordial relations with the Jewish state. In fact, Venezuela, the richest nation in South America, has so far resisted Arab League overtures that the PLO be permitted to establish an official office in Caracas, the capital.

Last month, as Venezuelans prepared for the December general election, two of the leading presidential candidates — Rafael Caldera and Jaime Lusinchi — addressed a Jewish community meeting and made it clear that they would not change President Luis Herrera Campins’ policy toward the PLO.

This Latin American democracy, an island of stability since the 1958 revolution, has a Jewish population of about 32,000 out of a total of some 16 million inhabitants. So, obviously, Venezuelan mainstream politicans are not pandering to the Jewish vote, which is insignificant. “The Venezuelans don’t deem it in their national interest to have a PLO office here,” said Yaacov Cohen, the Israeli Ambassador, in an interview.

PLO KEPT AT ANN’S LENGTH

Several South American nations, including Brazil and Mexico, have accredited PLO representatives. But Venezuela, fearing that a PLO emissary might link up with what are considered to be subversive groups, prefers to keep the PLO at aim’s length.

Yet, as Cohen pointed out, the Venezuelan government is not unsympathetic to the idea of Palestinian self-determination. At the United Nations, Venezuela has called on at least one occasion for a Palestinian state, Cohen said. “The Venezuelan envoy did not define the borders of this state, so one can interpret it to mean Jordan,” he observed.

Cohen, who has served in Vienna, Ankara, Brussels and The Hague, describes Israel’s relationship with Venezuela as “satisfactory.” Usually, he explained, it abstains on UN resolutions hostile to Israel.

However, Venezuela voted for the 1947 UN resolution calling for a Jewish state in part of Palestine.

Until a few years ago, the Venezuelan Embassy in Israel was located in Jerusalem. After the hue and cry fueled by Israel’s decision to declare Jerusalem its undivided and indivisible capital, Venezuela joined Holland and several Latin American lands and moved its Embassy to Tel Aviv. This incident did not really sour Israel’s relations with Venezuela–which has embassies in virtually every Arab country.

BILATERAL CULTURAL AND COMMERCIAL TIES

Israel’s bilateral ties with Venezuela extend into the cultural and commercial realms. When Venezuela marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Simon Bolivar, their greatest national hero, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performed in Caracas before an audience consisting of the President and eight members of his Cabinet.

After the U.S., Venezuela sends more dignitaries to Israel than any other country. Carlos Peres, the former President, visited Israel last summer. And in the past year alone, the ministers of education, health, tourism and industry have gone to Israel. In addition, the leaders of the majority and the main minority party in Congress — or parliament — have been guests of Israel. Reciprocating, Israel dispatched Minister of Commerce and Industry Gideon Patt and Interior Minister Yosef Burg to Venezuela.

Despite the distance involved — 14,000 miles — 2,000 Venezuelans went to Israel as tourists last year, Cohen said. In the 1982 fiscal year, Israel exported goods worth approximately $16 million to Venezuela. They included textiles, chemicals, irrigation equipment, and Arava and West Wind planes.

As elsewhere in Latin America, Israel has transferred military equipment to the Venezuelans. But, except for Uzi submachine guns, the extent of this trade is shrouded in mystery.

Although Venezuela produces 1.9 million barrels of oil per day, Israel does not purchase its crude, buying instead from Mexico, Egypt, Norway and the international spot market. Israeli agricultural authorities are active here, having helped Venezuelan farmers in such diverse fields as milk production, cattle breeding, horticulture, irrigation and vegetable growing. Experts in fisheries have also been sent to Venezuela.

GENERAL SYMPATHY TOWARD ISRAEL

In general, Venezuelans are sympathetic to Israel, including many of the 40,000 Lebanese Maronite Christians who live here, Cohen said. The print media concentrate on local and regional issues, with the Middle East conflict getting scant play.

During the war in Lebanon, Venezuelan editorial writers came down in the middle on Israel. El Universal, the biggest daily, was objective, Cohen related. El Mundo was positive. But El Nacional and The Daily Journal — Caracas’ English-language newspaper — tended to be negative vis-a-vis Israel’s invasion.

Cohen does not believe that Venezuela’s border dispute with Guyana over the vast, mineral-rich Essequibo region will have any repercussions on its Mideast policy. The question arises because Argentine canvassed Arab diplomatic support in its row with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

Venezuela, Cohen said, will try to find a peaceful way to solve the problem. Therefore, Venezuela will have no need to seek backing from the Arab bloc at the UN.

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