Israel mulls downgrading ties with Venezuela due to Iran alliance

By Barak Ravid , Haaretz Correspondent

Israel is considering downgrading its relations with Venezuela in light of the extremist anti-Israel line taken by the country's government under President Hugo Chavez. Israel is concerned about the growing alliance between Chavez and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A highly-placed source in Jerusalem says only preliminary talks have been held on the issue and no decision has been made.

Israel's ambassador to Venezuela, Shlomo Cohen, is due to leave his post next June. The Foreign Ministry has no plans to name a replacement at this point, preferring to send an acting ambassador instead. The possibility of naming a temporary head of mission in Caracas was raised at a recent Foreign Ministry meeting. Such a move would amount to a downgrading of Jerusalem's relations with Caracas.

Relations between Israel and Venezuela have deteriorated significantly since Chavez came to power. Chavez, the leader of Latin America's anti-American camp, has cozied up to Ahmadinejad, whom he sees as a ideological ally. The Iranian president went to Caracas on an official visit a few days ago - his third in two years.

The warm relationship between Caracas and Tehran is expressed in several areas of bilateral cooperation. Two weeks ago the entire staff of Iran's embassy in Caracas was invited to be guests of honor on Chavez's own television program, during which the Venezuelan president greeted them during the live taping.

Israeli sources who are following the Venezuela-Iran relationship closely note that Chavez recently instituted several reforms inspired by the Iranian Republic's Islamic Revolution. He plans to establish militias modeled on the Revolutionary Guards, as a counterweight to the regular army.

During the Second Lebanon War, Chavez criticized Israel harshly, comparing Israel's attacks against Palestinians and Lebanon with the "methods of Hitler" and saying that the Israelis are doing what Hitler did, killing innocent children and entire families.

In the wake of these statements, Venezuela's ambassador to Israel was summoned and reprimanded. In response, Venezuela downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel and recalled its ambassador to Caracas. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recalled the Israeli ambassador to Jerusalem, but he returned to Caracas soon after.