MEXICO CITY, Mexico – The presidents of Mexico and Israel spoke over the telephone this week with the intention of defusing the controversy over comments made by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu about US President Donald Trump’s plans for a wall on his nation’s southern border.
Last week, Trump announced his plans to construct a massive wall along the US-Mexico border measuring 3,200 kilometers (just under 2,000 miles), nearly 70 percent of which is already physically blocked or guarded by a “virtual wall” of high-tech cameras, sensors and over 20,000 border patrol agents on horseback, in vehicles and helicopters.
The highly controversial proposal, estimated to take many years to construct at a cost of over $20 billion, still faces great uncertainty as it is unfunded, faces opposition from many domestic and international sectors and must be approved via vote in US Congress. Trump insists that Mexico will pay for the construction of the wall, an impossible proposition that has raised the ire toward Washington south of the border.
Netanyahu, posting from his Twitter account, said that “Trump is completely right.” Netanyahu said that he “constructed a wall on the southern border of Israel” and that this action was a “great idea and a great success” as it “stopped all illegal immigration” into his country.
Netanyahu’s statement came shortly after Trump compared the wall he wants to build to that of Israel’s, constructed along the West Bank with the intention of stopping terrorist attacks.
The 730-kilometer (455 mile) wall, which began construction in 2002, has severely restricted Palestinian movement and has been criticized for isolating the West Bank economically, politically and socially while still not stopping outbreaks of violence. In fact, the wall invades Palestinian territory and has been condemned by both the United Nations and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
“People want protection and the wall will protect. All you have to do is ask Israel because there, it is an absolute disaster on the other side,” Trump said in an interview. He insisted that the Israeli wall has stopped “99.9 percent of all illegal entrances” into Israeli territory.
Trump soon thanked Netanyahu for his support and backing but he failed to realize that Netanyahu was referring to the barrier erected between Israel and Egypt, not Israel and the West Bank, just two of the five barriers Israel has erected.
The Israel-Egypt barrier, built from 2010 to 2013, was originally erected to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants from eastern African nations and includes infrared and nightvision cameras and motion detectors in addition to the physical wall. The wall runs some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the northern Gaza Strip city of Rafah to Eilat in the south on the Gulf of Aqaba.
Given the highly sensitive topic of the US-Mexico border wall and the massive economic and geopolitical ramifications of such a barrier, the timing of Netanyahu’s statement was enough for the Mexican Foreign Ministry to summon the Israeli Ambassador Yoni Peled for a meeting and to give him a formal note of protest.
The Israeli Prime Minister, trying to ingratiate himself to Trump two weeks before a scheduled visit to Washington, ended up calling into question the historically friendly relations between Israel and Mexico.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry expressed its “surprise, rejection and disappointment” at Netanyahu’s statement. Luis Videgaray, the Mexican Foreign Minister, said that Mexico considers Israel a “good friend” and expects to be “treated as such.”
Videgaray pointed out that just before Netanyahu’s tweet, the Mexican government held an official Holocaust remembrance ceremony in the capital that also rejected “all forms of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia,” a sentiment shared by Mexico’s large Jewish population of nearly 100,000 people. Furthermore, the Central Committee of the Jewish Community of Mexico completely rejected Natanyahu’s words.
Realizing the diplomatic misstep, Peled said that Netanyahu was “only sharing his experience in security” and was not “offering his (or Israel’s) position on the US-Mexico wall” as the situations in Israel and Mexico are completely different, especially given “Israel’s unique circumstances.”
Netanyahu followed suit and made remarks in Tel Aviv days later that he was not “commenting on the relations between the United States and Mexico.” He insisted that he was “only referring to the security barrier in the Sinai Peninsula.”
Instead of admitting that his pointed message came at an obviously inopportune time, regardless of his opinion on the topic, Netanyahu went his usual route and in a Trump-like manner, he blamed the “left-wing media” that is lying and has “mobilized a Bolshevik hunt” against him and his family.
“They want me to be prosecuted at any price,” Netanyahu added during the speech to his conservative Likud party, referencing to the fact that he is being questioned by Israeli police due to allegations of corruption.
Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel and a more moderate member of Likud, then stepped in and called Enrique Peña Nieto, his Mexican counterpart, in order to smooth over the recent bump in diplomatic relations. “It was simply a misunderstanding,” Rivlin said.
Peña Nieto said that the “interpretation of what was said by Netanyahu was inevitable” given the topic and timing, especially as the Mexican leader canceled a trip to Washington this week over Trump’s continued rhetoric.
Furthermore, Trump has only referred to a single wall, which led Peña Nieto to tell Rivlin that the statement “left absolutely no room for any other interpretation” and led to Mexico’s request for a “public clarification.”
“Mexico has always been and will be interested in friendly, close relations with Israel. We wish to continue on the path that has marked our two nations’ warm relationship, a relationship that was unfortunately damaged by Netanyahu’s words,” Peña Nieto said.
Rivlin expressed his “hope that the relationship between Israel and Mexico” will resume its traditions of “cooperation and friendship,” and insinuated that Netanyahu does not speak for the State of Israel.
“We do not have any intention of comparing Israel’s uncommon security situation and the needs that arise from it with the situations of the nations with whom Israel is friendly,” Rivlin said.
“I am sorry for any hurt caused by this misunderstanding but it was still nothing more than an understanding, and I am sure we can put this issue behind us because I believe our ties are much stronger than any passing disagreement or misunderstanding,” Rivlin concluded and told Peña Nieto that he looks forward to seeing him in Jerusalem for the planned visit later this year.