Panama and Israel: A special relationship

Martinelli’s efforts to intertwine his economy with Israel shows Panama will continue to “bank on Palestine denial”.

In the aftermath of the latest bloodbath, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli reiterated his country's solidarity with the "guardians of the capital of the world" via the UN vote [EPA]

Panama recently distinguished itself by voting alongside a smattering of great powers – the US, Israel, Micronesia – against enhanced UN membership status for Palestine

A similar smattering of great powers voted in February 2010 against a UN resolution calling for investigations into allegations of war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza. Shortly after this particular vote, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli travelled to Israel to perform requisite acts of sycophancy while discussing free trade possibilities and other bilateral ventures. 

According to the Jerusalem Post, Martinelli affirmed eternal Panamanian solidarity with the Jewish state based on “its guardianship of the capital of the world – Jerusalem” and assured Israeli President Shimon Peres that Panama’s diminutive size did not prevent it from having “a big heart for Israel”. 

Martinelli’s pilgrimage was commemorated in May of the following year in a four-part magazine series issued by the Israeli embassy in Panama, on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s independence from the owners of the land on which the nation was built. 

Titled “Israel: 63 years of constant progress”, the magazine reported that the Panamanian presidential visit and signing of various accords had prompted Israel to issue a page of postage stamps in Martinelli’s honour. 

Other bits of trivia appeared in between full-page advertisements for banks, congratulating Israel on its 63 years. These included the calculation that “Israelis drink 3.5 cups of coffee per day”, that “they drink it the same way the Europeans do”, that “Israel has the most divers per capita in the world” and that the “land of Israel” was in 1947 “also known as Palestine”. Never mind that the land of Israel was not known as the land of Israel in 1947. 

The 64th year of coffee and progress 

Had the embassy magazine been less superficial in its selection of Israel-related factoids, it might have mentioned that, in addition to exhibiting European coffee consumption tendencies and diving at a disproportionate rate, Israelis are also known for disproportionate extermination of Palestinians.

 People & Power – Panama: Village of the damned

During Operation Cast Lead, 1,400 Palestinians – primarily civilians – were slaughtered in a matter of 22 days, while 160 Gazans were eliminated last month, halfway through the 64th year of constant progress. 

In the aftermath of the latest bloodbath, Panama reiterated its solidarity with the guardians of the capital of the world via the UN vote. It remains to be seen whether a new round of Martinelli postage stamps is in order. 

Given Panama’s recent history under US occupation, it may seem incongruous that the country’s “big heart” would side so fervently with the occupiers against the occupied in the case of Israel-Palestine. 

As the embassy magazine reveals, however, the heart’s orientation is far from a new development, and instead predates the very creation of the state of Israel. 

According to the magazine’s account, Panama was represented on the five-member UN Palestine Commission by a certain Eduardo Morgan Alvarez, who “understood the injustices that the Jews had suffered” and who succeeded in “persuad[ing] smaller countries, primarily in Latin America, to support the UN [partition] resolution”. 

Indeed, the current website of the Morgan and Morgan Group (MMG), an “integrated and multidisciplinary group of service companies”, boasts that “the bond between the [MMG] and Israel dates back to 1947, when our founder Eduardo Morgan Alvarez, as a member of the United Nations Committee, became instrumental in the creation of the State of Israel”. 

The embassy magazine meanwhile notes additional Panamanian contributions to the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, such as the creation of an airline company, Lineas Aereas de Panama (LAPSA), for the express purpose of transferring war planes from the US to Israel in contravention of the arms embargo then in effect. The magazine reports: “The first plane arrived to Israel on June 21, 1948.” 

When special relationships overlap 

As only befits a nation committed to constant progress, the one-time recipient of LAPSA donations has now made a name for itself in the business of security exports, a euphemism for the propagation of insecurity in various locations across the globe. 

A few years back, Panama itself became one of the target clients of Israeli private security firm Global CST, founded by the former Head of the Operations Directorate of the Israeli army. The firm’s Latin American security efforts have included attempts by an employee to peddle classified Colombian military documents to anti-government guerrillas. 

Despite the sacred nature of the US-Israel relationship, Global CST’s overtures to Panama seem to have triggered the Monroe Doctrine reflex. A McClatchy article entitled “WikiLeaks: US saw Israeli firm’s rise in Latin America as a threat” specifies the following: 

“At one point [in 2010], Panama’s intelligence chief threatened to rely more heavily on the Israelis out of anger that US officials wouldn’t tap the phones of the president’s political enemies, according to [WikiLeaks] cables. US officials countered that such an arrangement would threaten all security co-operation with Panama, and the Panamanians backed down.” 

The cables quote Martinelli as confirming that “We don’t want to change friends” – though he stopped short of referring to US friends as the guardians of the capital of the world or the objects of Panama’s big heart. 

As for world capital of a different sort, multimillionaire Martinelli’s efforts to intertwine his economy with Israel’s is a good indication that Panama will continue to bank on the profitability of Palestine denial. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.