MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (Dec. 12)
President Chaim Herzog of Israel, on his first official visit to Latin America, got as regal a welcome in Uruguay on Monday as he received when he landed in Argentina a week ago.
But crossing the River Plate, Herzog discovered entirely different conditions prevailing in the two republics. And differences in their respective relationships with Israel were evident in the Israeli president’s dealings with their leaders.
In Uruguay, which is economically stable and relatively serene, the Israeli chief of state and his host, President Julio Maria Sanguinetti, were able to celebrate four decades of uninterrupted friendship and good will between their respective countries.
In Argentina, a nation in economic disarray, Herzog may have struck a deal with President Carlos Saul Menem, who has been grappling with rising unemployment and runaway inflation since he took office in July.
Menem was suspect in the Jewish community, partly because he represents the populist Peronist party, which has a dubious record with respect to Jewish concerns, and partly because of his Syrian ancestry.
Menem, who is a Moslem convert to Catholicism, gave Herzog and his wife, Aura, an unusually friendly welcome. He even asked to be invited to Israel, where he will would like to make an official visit next September.
Although his warmth was undoubtedly genuine, it was also intended to impress Jews, and not just those in Argentina.
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At least one Argentine Jewish banker is convinced that by pleasing Israel, Menem expects to please influential Jews in the United States, who he believes can help Argentina get the economic assistance and private investments it needs.
During his talks with Herzog, Menem reportedly offered to use his close personal relations with the Syrian government to mediate peace with Israel.
But Herzog told the Argentine leader that for the time being, his most valuable contribution could be in two other areas of great concern to Israelis.
One is the situation of Syrian Jews, who are barred from leaving the country, even to visit relatives abroad. Another is the release of Israeli soldiers held hostage by Syrian-backed groups in Lebanon.
Menem is believed to be willing to intercede in both matters and hopes to get positive results before he visits the region. Herzog’s visit to Argentina may have helped shore up the Menem administration, which has declared a moratorium on Argentina’s $7 billion internal debt and devalued the austral, the national currency — measures that disturbed the middle class.
The lack of dramatic issues in Uruguay was made up for by the pomp and color of Herzog’s reception here.
A guard of 300 horsemen resplendent in 17th-century cavalry uniforms with helmets and lances accompanied his motorcade through streets festooned with Israeli flags to the presidential palace.
Several hundred children from Jewish and non-Jewish schools lined three floors of staircases, singing Hebrew and Spanish songs as the two presidents entered.
At a private luncheon in Sanguinetti’s office, Herzog recalled that Uruguay supported the Zionist cause as early as 1922, when its delegate to the San Remo conference upheld the idea of a Jewish national home.
He also recalled that Uruguay helped save tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
Last month, on the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first organized pogrom in Nazi Germany, special candles were lit in churches in Montevideo, in remembrance of the tragic event.