The Israel Mexico Crisis

Binyomin Netanyahu has gotten himself into another mess. What began as an effort to ingratiate himself with one world leader led to a breakdown in his relationship with another. Why does this keep happening to him? It may simply be the result of arrogance, or it may be the modern media’s tendency to create a fiasco over the most trifling comments. There is no question that today’s social media and the phenomenon of tweeting have created many problems. There was a time when diplomats engaged in diplomacy and politicians dealt with politics, but today, everyone tweets. They write messages of just a few lines and quickly broadcast them around the world. Even Donald Trump does this.

Undoubtedly, Netanyahu never dreamed that his terse message would evoke such a storm. He was simply praising President Trump’s idea to build a wall along America’s southern border. And he added, “President Trump is correct; I also built a wall along Israel’s southern border, and it stopped illegal immigration. A great success and a great idea.” Netanyahu released this statement on Friday, January 27. Few people in Israel anticipated the storm that it was to create.

Last Monday, the tensions reached a record high. Jonathan Peled, the Israeli ambassador to Mexico, was summoned for a rebuke. Luis Videgaray, the Mexican foreign minister, was interviewed on international television and tried to show the world that he was stunned. “It was an unimaginable, offensive tweet,” he asserted. The Mexican foreign ministry released a statement asserting that they were shocked and disappointed at Netanyahu’s comment that Israel’s border wall had prevented infiltrations. They pointed out that just one week earlier, at a ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Mexican foreign minister had said, “Mexico and Israel are partners in the historic rejection of racism and xenophobia, and Mexico will continue working closely with Israel to combat every form of discrimination in the world.” Were they really offended, or did someone want to turn the prime minister’s trivial comment into a pretext for a diplomatic explosion? No one can know for sure.

Netanyahu, as usual, ignored the criticism from Mexico and laughed at the disapproval he received within Israel as well, even though it was not only from the opposition. At the same time, he tried to calm down the rising passions, albeit with what amounted to little more than a Band-Aid. At the weekly Likud party meeting, he stressed that Israel’s relations with Mexico were unimpaired, and he accused the media of distorting the truth.

“Trump praised the fence that was built along our border with Egypt,” Netanyahu explained. “He said that it completely halted infiltrations into the country. I said that he was correct, and he tweeted my response further, and then the political analysts came along and turned it into a mountain of accusations. Now they are saying, ‘You offended Mexico; you ruined our relations with them.’ But who cares what they say? We have excellent relations with Mexico, and we will continue to have excellent relations with them.”

Netanyahu did not stop there. Instead, he proceeded to lambast the Israeli media.

“What the media is doing is diverting attention from the fantastic success of the border fence in the south. That does not surprise me. The left-wing media has gone on a Bolshevik witch-hunt. They have mounted a brainwashing campaign, and they have embarked on a quest for character assassination against my family and me, day and night. They are creating a deluge of fake news against us. They are pressuring the attorney general and the law enforcement agents to indict me at any cost.”

What few people know is that someone tried to offer Netanyahu a way out of his predicament, but he was not quick enough to take advantage of it. On Motzoei Shabbos, Rabbi Shlomo Tawil, rov in the Jewish community of Mexico, called his good friend in Yerushalayim, Chaim Cohen. During that phone call, they discussed contacting Netanyahu directly, but decided to ask Aryeh Deri to intercede with the prime minister. Rabbi Tawil sent an official letter to Deri, on the letterhead of the rabbinate of the Magen Dovid kehillah in Mexico. The letter mentioned the close connections maintained by the Jewish community with their government, and noted that the prime minister was indirectly evoking a wave of anti-Semitism, which had the potential to lead to bloodshed. The situation was truly frightening. Their efforts met with only a small amount of success, and Deri himself, lacking any alternative, issued a clarification of his own, which was publicized rapidly in Mexico and proved very helpful in lowering the tensions.

Last Thursday, the diplomatic flap came to an end – or, at least, we hope it did – with an apology from the Israeli foreign ministry. It is important to remember that the current foreign minister of the State of Israel – in the absence of a full-time occupant of that office – is none other than Binyomin Netanyahu. It was actually President Reuven Rivlin who conveyed the apology to Mexico. It was clear, though, that Rivlin himself had several reasons of his own to intervene in the situation. In the end, Aryeh Deri emerged from the episode looking like the responsible adult.

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Now, the name Chaim Cohen may sound familiar to you. I am sure that some of my readers are struggling to remember where they heard the name before. Allow me to solve the mystery for you: Chaim Cohen was a member of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv’s inner circle, one of the closest people to the gadol hador. He was fondly called “the driver’s driver.” Rav Elyashiv’s driver was Rav Yosef Efrati, but when Rav Efrati was not available, Chaim Cohen served as his driver instead. He drove Rav Elyashiv every morning in his special scooter, and he was at the rov’s side day and night. He was able to consult with Rav Elyashiv on any subject, and he had the rov’s unfettered trust.

Chaim Cohen was born in Argentina and later resided in Teveria. Somehow, he found his way into Rav Elyashiv’s inner circle, and somehow, he earned Rav Elyashiv’s affection and remained close with him. He is relatively young and is highly intelligent. Today, he is a businessman. In the wake of recent events, I contacted Chaim to hear his perspective on the affair.

When did Aryeh Deri first ask Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a public apology?

“It all began on Motzoei Shabbos here in Eretz Yisroel. In Mexico, which is eight hours behind us, it was still Shabbos morning. Netanyahu had come out with his famous tweet, which made it seem as if Trump had derived inspiration from us to build a barrier along the border, and expressed his approval of the wall.”

When Netanyahu said that the wall was a “great success and a great idea,” it is obvious that he is referring to the wall on the Egyptian border, not the wall between the United States and Mexico.

“Yes, but when he said that Trump’s wall would be a good idea, that was certainly said about the wall between America and Mexico. There is no other wall that Trump has been talking about. And Netanyahu definitely supported Trump’s proposal to build a wall there.”

What is so terrible about that?

“If you knew all the background, you would understand that it is truly terrible. During the election campaign in America, Trump said repeatedly that he would close the border between America and Mexico. He told the American people that the country’s economic woes and its rise in crime can be blamed on Mexico. He made it sound as if Mexico is the source of everything bad that is happening in America.”

That may be true….

“Possibly. But if you speak to people in Mexico, they will tell you that the clients of all the criminals are Americans. In any event, Trump portrayed the Mexicans as the worst members of the human race, making it seem crucial for a wall to be built. Add to that the fact that there has been a cold war of sorts between Mexico and the United States for the past 150 years. The Mexicans believe that America stole a huge amount of land from them, including the areas occupied by Los Angeles, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, and many other areas that they believe are rightfully theirs. Every outraged Mexican knows that Trump’s wall is meant to separate Mexico from the areas that were conquered from it.

“This is a very emotional subject in Mexico, and every government of the United States was always very sensitive to everything concerning Mexico, including the immigrants from Mexico to America. They were aware of the pitfalls in their relationship. In addition to all of that, there is the friendship between Mexico and the State of Israel. The recent UN resolution about Yerushalayim was softened because the Mexican representative in the UN asked for a revision. The Mexicans feel that they have always supported the Jewish nation.

“In addition to that, the president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, feels that he is in a weak position. He is at the end of his term. There will be elections in 2018, but he won’t be able to be elected again. He is at an absolute nadir, the lowest point that any Mexican president has ever reached. He has only a 12 percent approval rating, and he is subject to record levels of criticism. The Mexican public was enraged when he invited Trump to visit the country. He is contending with a fierce opposition.

“Now you can understand why Netanyahu’s tweet received unprecedented attention in Mexico. It came at the worst possible time. The Mexican government turned it into an international problem, with every incendiary element possible. Now the Jews are involved in the issue of the border wall as well. In the Mexican people’s eyes, Israel and the Jews are part of Trump’s initiative. That led them to be considered traitors to the Mexican people. Of course, there were some who even expressed regret that Mexico had accepted Jewish refugees from Syria with open arms. Those Jews, after all, have become part of the Mexican economy. Many of them now own large amounts of property and have a significant standing in Mexican society. That is why the people are wondering how the Jews dared oppose them. On top of all that, it has become common knowledge in Mexico that the wall is supposed to be built by a Jewish-owned company. In short, there isn’t much more that could have been done to turn this into an explosive situation that may endanger the lives of the Jews of Mexico.”

And the Jewish community realized that they had a problem?

“They felt that they were in the eye of the storm. They have never been involved in Mexico’s internal problems. In fact, they were so concerned that on Shabbos itself, the presidents of the Jewish communities in Mexico sent a letter to the president and the foreign minister, emphasizing that they do not identify with Netanyahu’s words. Rabbi Tawil then called me on Motzoei Shabbos.”

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Rabbi Shlomo Tawil is a very successful figure in Mexico and has close ties with the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel. Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman guides him on every issue pertaining to his public leadership. When Rav Shteinman visited Mexico, he stayed in Rabbi Tawil’s home. Rabbi Tawil also used to visit Rav Elyashiv, and those visits brought him in contact with Chaim Cohen.

Why did he choose to call you?

“We are both from Argentina, and we have been good friends since we were there. Rabbi Tawil comes from the Shuvah Yisroel community of Argentina and is a brother-in-law of Rabbi Avrohom Antebi. I have traveled back and forth between Israel and Mexico many times over the past decade, because of my business ventures. So we have remained connected.”

Did he expect you to call the prime minister directly?

“He knows that I have connections with some politicians, and he asked me to do something. He claimed that what happened has led to great damage, and he was afraid that there might be a danger to life. He told me that the situation today is unprecedented. There is tremendous incitement on social media, and since every youth today is connected to those networks, there is no telling if a tragedy will take place. I offered to speak with Aryeh Deri, who is the Minister of the Interior and is therefore responsible for immigration, and who is also a member of the cabinet. I asked Rabbi Tawil to write an official letter addressed to the Minister of the Interior. In that letter, he asked Deri to intercede with the prime minister and to make it clear immediately that the prime minister’s statement represents his own personal views, not the position of the government of Israel.

“I spoke with Aryeh Deri, and I explained to him that we were on the verge of an explosion in Mexico, and we needed to put out the fire before it developed further. He understood the potential for danger, and he agreed that we needed to convince Netanyahu that he had made a mistake and he shouldn’t have gotten involved in this issue at all. Deri met with Netanyahu, bringing several senior officials from the Foreign Ministry with him, but their remonstrations fell on deaf ears. I then suggested to Deri that he should announce his position publicly, so that the Mexicans would understand that there is more than one school of thought in Israel. Indeed, Deri clarified that the State of Israel is not involving itself in the issue, and that Netanyahu’s position is not the position of the state. I saw to it that his statement was translated into Spanish and was quickly spread throughout the media in Mexico. The news soon made headlines throughout Mexico: Israel’s Minister of the Interior had opposed its prime minister, and he had announced that the prime minister’s view was not the official government position.”

But you must have magnified the crisis, if the Mexicans now see that our interior minister is openly disagreeing with our prime minister. You also vilified Netanyahu; he must have been upset about that.

“Aryeh Deri told Netanyahu in advance about what he planned to do. In fact, I asked him to make his own public statement before he met with Netanyahu, but he refused to do anything of the sort until he had spoken with the prime minister. He believed that Netanyahu wasn’t aware of what he had done, and if he understood the implications of his words, he would release a clarification on his own. Deri insisted that he would release his own statement only if Netanyahu remained stubborn. And that is exactly what happened. After Deri’s clarification was publicized in Mexico, Netanyahu understood that the situation was not as simple as he had thought, and he issued an apology of sorts at the Likud party meeting on Monday. But he also went on the offensive against the newspapers, and it was exactly at that time that the Mexican foreign minister was interviewed on CNN. Then Netanyahu realized that he wasn’t dealing only with the spite of the leftist media in Israel, but with damage on an international level, and that Aryeh Deri knew what he was talking about. Deri, for his part, quickly publicized Netanyahu’s quasi-apology, and it helped to restore some calm.”

Can we say today – on Friday, almost a week after the tumult began – that this affair is behind us?

“Yes. And I hope that no Israeli company will be involved in the construction of the wall. The Jewish communities in Mexico have already decided that if that happens, they will protest outside the Israeli embassy. They feel that if an Israeli company is involved in the construction, it will endanger the Jews of Mexico.”

Do you have any conclusion to draw from this?

“I don’t want to draw any conclusions against Netanyahu. What I can say is that maintaining ties between Jewish communities in chutz la’aretz and senior chareidi politicians in Eretz Yisroel is a very good and effective thing, and I feel that it would be appropriate for it to continue – in Mexico and everywhere else.”