Mexico’s election puts Lopez Obrador’s stance on Israel under microscope

As President Lopez Obrador’s tenure ends, advocates reflect on his reticence to speak out against Israel’s war in Gaza.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks at a morning news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on International Workers' Day [Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Mexico City, Mexico – It was a case where the president’s words — and his administration’s actions — did not seem to match.

On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice announced that Mexico had requested to join South Africa’s case accusing the Israeli government of committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.

But the very next day, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, refused to define Israel’s actions as genocide.

“We don’t want to put ourselves into a definition of this type that, instead of resolving a conflict, aggravates it,” he said in his morning news conference.

It was the latest evidence of Lopez Obrador’s ambiguous, somewhat contradictory stance towards Israel and its war in Gaza, which is nearing its eighth month.

Lopez Obrador and his legacy in office have been under the microscope in recent months, as his political party — the National Regeneration Movement or Morena — prepares for a pivotal nationwide vote.

This Sunday, Mexico holds its largest election in history, with every seat in Congress and the presidency at stake. The vote is considered a referendum on Lopez Obrador’s outgoing administration, which enjoyed high popularity during its six years in office.

But critics have questioned what the legacy of his foreign policy will be — and whether his likely successor, Morena party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum, will carry on his ambivalent relationship towards Israel.

FILE - Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, right, and Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, greet supporters at a rally in Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo, July 1, 2019. Immigration is not part of Mexico's political conversation as the country gears up for its presidential vote on June 2. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, right, and Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, greet supporters at a rally in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, July 1, 2019 [Fernando Llano/AP]

Bucking the ‘pink tide’

The left-leaning Lopez Obrador was elected in 2018 amid a tide of discontent.

Voters rejected the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party in a landslide, leading to a historic margin of victory for Lopez Obrador and his Morena party.

His election heralded a period of equally historic wins for left-leaning leaders across Latin America.

In the years that followed, Chile elected the progressive Gabriel Boric, its youngest president ever. In Colombia, meanwhile, Gustavo Petro became the first left-wing leader to win the modern presidency.

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric speaks during his closing campaign rally in Santiago, Chile, December 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido
Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric speaks during his closing campaign rally in Santiago, Chile, December 16, 2021 [Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters]

And in Brazil, the prominent left-wing leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva nabbed his third term in office, after a gap of more than a decade.

Critics have dubbed the election streak as a new “pink tide”, ushering in a generation of like-minded leaders. But when it comes to Israel, Mexico’s Lopez Obrador has broken the mould.

After the war erupted on October 7, much of the so-called “pink tide” spoke out against the spiralling death toll in Gaza.

Boric condemned Israel’s military offensive as “disproportionate”. Others went further: Lula recalled Brazil’s ambassador to Israel on Wednesday, and Petro cut diplomatic ties altogether in May.

However, their ally in Mexico has not followed suit with his own full-throated criticism.

Observers have said Lopez Obrador has instead sought to strike a middle ground, a stance that has failed to please both Israeli officials and Palestinian rights supporters.

On October 9, for instance, the Mexican president offered his support to Israel, but refused to condone the violence unfolding against Palestinians in Gaza.

“We respect the Israeli government and even more the Israeli people,” he said. “Mexico does not want war. We are pacifists, and we do not want anyone to lose their lives, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian.”

That equivocation earned a furious response from Israel’s ambassador to Mexico, Einat Kranz Neiger, who retorted in a media interview, “Not taking sides is supporting terror.”

Lopez Obrador also faced pressure from pro-Palestinian advocates. Still, a few weeks later, he doubled down, ruling out any possibility of taking a firm stance.

“We – and I want to be very clear when I say this – are not going to break relations with Israel or take a position beyond calling for peace,” López Obrador said at a news conference on November 7.

Response rooted in contradiction

Témoris Grecko, a journalist covering the war in Gaza, has spent two decades reporting on the Middle East for the Mexican newspaper Milenio and other publications.

He too has noticed a more muted reaction from the normally outspoken Lopez Obrador. “The pace has been really slow,” he said of the administration’s response.

Grecko was on the ground in the West Bank to report on the conflict in the weeks after Hamas attacked southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,139 people and taking nearly 250 captive.

Israel’s months-long counter-offensive, however, has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians in Gaza, nearly half of them children. Human rights experts have raised concerns about the “risk of genocide” and “full-blown famine”.

In Grecko’s opinion, Mexico’s reticence to join other left-leaning governments in condemning Israel hints at the weight of the military and commercial contracts between the two countries.

“Always, the public position of Mexico has been in favour of Palestine, but there’s a contradiction,” Grecko said, pointing to Mexico’s economic and military interests.

“Mexico buys products from Israel, like arms and spyware, and there are contracts for Israeli organisations to train police and private security as well,” Grecko explained. “And there is a Mexican company, Cemex, that provided raw materials for a wall in Israel.”

Israel is the second-largest supplier of technology and training for the Mexican military. Grecko said that while the pro-Israel lobby in the United States may be internationally renowned, similar interests exist in Mexico, too.

“There are lobbying forces, which may not be as loud or visible as in the United States, but you can feel them,” Grecko said.

Outside the presidential palace

Nevertheless, Lopez Obrador has also faced protests from pro-Palestinian voices who seek to push him to take action.

Cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel is the primary demand of university students at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, who launched a solidarity encampment on their campus in May.

After the university’s administration agreed to consider methods to divest from Israel, the encampment relocated to the city’s central plaza, the Zocalo, in front of the national palace.

Carla Torres, one of the organisers of the encampment, said Lopez Obrador’s refusal to cut ties with Israel is an example of Mexico’s long history of lukewarm, neutral or outright isolationist responses to international conflicts.

But in her opinion, Mexico’s love-hate relationship with its northern neighbour, the US, is the primary reason the president has not denounced Israel more forcefully.

“Mexico is a subordinate nation,” she said, citing its dependence on the US, its largest trading partner and a key ally to Israel. The US provides $3.8bn in unconditional military aid to Israel every year.

The encampment has not been the only act of protest. On May 29, four days before Mexico’s nationwide election, several hundred rioters threw Molotov cocktails at the Israeli embassy in Mexico City.

Minor damage to the building was reported, as protesters sought to show their outrage over Israel’s attacks in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where many civilians have been displaced.

For Torres, these acts of protest are a potent tool for educating the public about the conflict – and encouraging the government to end its “all talk, no action” posture.

She and the team from the UNAM have passed out pamphlets in the Zocalo plaza, trying to engage passersby in conversations about the war. Torres told Al Jazeera that, in her experience, many of the Mexicans she met in the square knew little about the conflict.

Passing the baton

For Edith Olivares Ferreto, the director of Amnesty International’s Mexico section, Lopez Obrador’s tiptoed posture on Gaza mirrors the way he responds to human rights abuses on his home turf.

“An estimated 20 people disappear in Mexico every day, and nine women are murdered,” she said, listing problems like increased violence and military abuses that have unfolded under the Lopez Obrador presidency.

Lopez Obrador is expected to soon pass the baton to his Morena party colleague Claudia Sheinbaum, the frontrunner in Sunday’s race for the presidency. Mexican election law bars previous presidents from running for a second term.

Still, Olivares Ferreto expects that, under Sheinbaum, little will change — whether in human rights or international relations.

Torres and Grecko offered similar observations in interviews with Al Jazeera, predicting a Sheinbaum presidency will likely see her prioritise relationships with the military, Israel and the US over any pro-Palestinian stance.

“She has different origins, a background with more participation in protest movements, but she could be even more authoritarian than AMLO,” Torres said.

Nevertheless, Sheinbaum has spoken out about the Palestinian plight. In 2009, Sheinbaum wrote a newspaper op-ed calling for Palestinian liberation and reflecting on her own family’s history of escaping persecution.

If elected on Sunday, she stands to be the first Mexican president of Jewish heritage.

“Because of my Jewish origin, because of my love for Mexico and because I feel like a citizen of the world, I share with millions the desire for justice, equality, fraternity and peace,” Sheinbaum explained in the op-ed. “No reason justifies the murder of Palestinian civilians.”

Claudia Sheinbaum raises her arms in front of a sign that says "2 de junio vota"
Presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum holds a campaign rally in her hometown of Mexico City on May 16 [Raquel Cunha/Reuters]

A bitter legacy

For human rights advocate Eduardo Ibanez, however, the prospect of cutting ties with Israel is particularly complex.

Ibanez works as an organiser assisting the families of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who disappeared in 2014, prompting nationwide outrage.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - AUGUST 26: Relatives of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, hold portraits during a protest demanding justice for the 43 missing students from the Isidro Burgos rural teachers college, in Mexico City, Mexico on August 26, 2022. Six of the 43 Mexican students disappeared in 2014, were kept alive in a warehouse for days then turned over to the commander of the local army base who ordered their killings, the Mexican government official leading the Truth Commission said Friday. (Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Relatives of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa hold portraits during a protest demanding justice, in Mexico City, Mexico, on August 26, 2022 [Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Both the Mexican military and criminal groups have been implicated in the mass kidnapping, which has yet to be solved. Decades later, forensic specialists have only managed to identify the partial remains of three students.

Lopez Obrador had campaigned for office on the promise of providing answers to the families of the missing students — but Ibanez points out that any rupture in Mexico-Israel bonds could potentially endanger the pursuit of justice.

A Mexican military official named Tomas Zeron fled to Israel in 2020, after being accused of covering up the military’s complicity in the Ayotzinapa case. Zeron also faces charges after being caught on tape torturing suspects during the initial Ayotzinapa investigation.

In the years since, Mexico and Israel have participated in unsuccessful talks to extradite Zeron. Ibanez fears that negotiations would surely end if Mexico were to cut off diplomatic ties.

Just last April, Mexico warned Israel about its refusal to arrest Zeron.

“The lack of progress in resolving this case is interpreted as de facto protection of Tomas Zeron by the Israeli government and threatens to become an irritating and disruptive factor,” the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement.

Still, Ibanez suspects progress will ultimately be made in neither case – not for Ayotzinapa, not for Gaza.

“Poor Palestine, poor Ayotzinapa. I really don’t think anything is going to get better,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera