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Latin America and Palestine: Watershed or Worthless?

In the last two months, the world has witnessed a wave of diplomatic support for a Palestinian state from a region that is continuing to extend its foreign policy imprint: Latin America. But will this trend yield any measurable progress toward a two-state Palestinian-Israeli agreement—or produce a negligible effect on Palestine’s quest for full autonomy and sovereignty?

Although Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela fully recognized a sovereign Palestinian state before the end of last year, Brazil’s decision to throw its diplomatic weight behind Palestine in December 2010 initiated a chain reaction through the region. Given Brazil’s economic prominence, its South American neighbors likely saw low political risks in following Brasília’s lead. For instance, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sent a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas only five days after then-Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did so. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Uruguay have since issued similar statements.

After Chile formally recognized a Palestinian state earlier this month, Palestinian officials suggested Paraguay and Peru would shortly follow suit—the latter of which acquiesced this week. Peru was widely expected to acknowledge a Palestinian state in anticipation of the third Summit of South American-Arab Countries (Cumbre América del Sur-Países Árabes), which will be hosted in Lima beginning February 12. 

This domino effect begs the question: Why now? The Palestine Liberation Organization was established back in 1964 and Abbas has been the PA president for over six years—so there has not been a recent regime change. Most likely, it appears that Latin America was simply fed up with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Despite the optimism that persisted in September 2010 with the re-launching of the first direct talks since the 2007 Annapolis Conference, those negotiations quickly broke off—resulting in the present stasis.

Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Héctor Timerman, hinted that his government was growing frustrated with this stagnation. Timerman cited his country’s recognition of Palestine based on Argentina’s “deep desire to see a definitive advance in the negotiation process leading to the establishment of a just and durable peace in the Middle East.” After Fernández de Kirchner’s letter to Abbas became public, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (IMFA) replied with a statement expressing “regret and disappointment.” Argentina’s move is particularly noteworthy given its substantial Jewish population, the largest in South America.

The combined population of Brazil and Argentina exceeds 200 million people making the dual recognitions of Palestine no small gestures. IMFA said that any unilateral attempt to recognize a Palestinian state “harms trust between the sides as well as their commitment to the agreed framework of the peace negotiations.” This is because Israel—like the United States—will only recognize Palestine as part of a comprehensive and multilateral peace accord. IMFA spokesman Yigal Palmor put it more bluntly: “They never made any contribution to [the Middle East peace process]… and now they’re making a decision that is completely contrary to everything that has been agreed so far. It is absurd.”

Israel’s concerns are primarily security-based, as Israel wants to ensure that Abbas and his Fatah coalition in the West Bank will have the stable institutions not to be overthrown by the Hamas movement, which rejects the two-state solution and controls the Gaza Strip after ousting Fatah in 2007. The PA, on the other hand, believes that they have negotiated with Israel in good faith but with little results. Israel has continued to build settlements past the Green Line, also known as the armistice lines before the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel annexed East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians claim all three territories as their future state, which are commonly referred to as “pre-1967 borders” in the press. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges the “two states for two peoples” concept, he has not altered his positions on Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, which he considers “final status” issues to be resolved at the end of negotiations.

Since U.S.-brokered talks have collapsed for the time being, PA diplomats believe that if enough nations recognize a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders, Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will become indefensible. PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki noted: “If Israel keeps refusing to recognize the Palestinian state when other countries do, this will make a difference.” Israel contends that if more countries recognize a Palestinian state—whatever the terms—Palestinians would be less inclined to return to the negotiating table. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon remarked: “We can see an obvious connection to the recent spate of recognition and a hardening of the Palestinian position.”

How is this Latin American diplomatic wave being perceived in Israeli society? While the millions who seek a two-state solution welcome the news, others see it as a sign of U.S. inaction toward Latin America and increasing Iranian influence in the region. Iran and Israel are sworn enemies—and Israelis believe that Iran’s desired nuclear program poses an existential threat to their country. An op-ed in The Jerusalem Post last month noted: “There is no fence-sitting along the Iran-Israel divide. Latin American countries that embrace Iran always do so to the detriment of their ties with Israel.”

On the note of Brazil, it appears that its trendsetting recognition of Palestine was part of Lula’s larger desire to strengthen ties with the Middle East. During his tenure, Lula hosted state visits from Abbas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Syrian President Bashar Assad—and visited the region in turn. An analysis by Sean Goforth in World Politics Review said that Lula tried to establish Brazil as a vanguard in world politics during his mandate as he “assembled a constituency of developing nations in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, all broadly supportive of Brazil’s worldview.” Lula knew that Brazil’s influence was growing as its economy was advancing, which is perhaps why he rejected the U.S. role in Middle East peace negotiations—claiming in November 2009 that the United States should no longer broker the talks. Goforth concluded: “In many ways, Brazil has become America’s alter ego in world affairs.”

Why was Colombia the sole country to buck the trend? President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration do not oppose a Palestinian state; rather, they are adopting the U.S.-Israeli approach. Some suspect that Bogotá is tepid to follow Brasília and others because of Colombia’s military and economic alliance with the United States. Both nations share similar interests especially in terms of counternarcotics measures, and Colombia is a heavy beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid under Plan Colombia. According to ForeignAssistance.gov, Colombia receives the most American aid dollars outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan—almost $465 million has been requested  for Bogotá from the U.S. Congress for Fiscal Year 2011.

Further, prior to assuming the presidency, Santos cultivated strong relations with Israel as Colombia’s Defense Minister. Colombia won exclusive military contracts with Israel to manufacture assault rifles, and, in turn, Israeli security firms were awarded contracts to combat FARC rebels. Firms in Israel’s strong homeland security sector are paid by Colombia to manufacture combat airplanes and refueling tankers. Aside from a robust military bond, Israel has been assisting Colombia on the humanitarian front as well—having been one of the first foreign responders to the December 2010 floods.

The actions of Chile are also notable; Chile recognized a “full, free and sovereign” Palestine but omitted the pre-1967 border terminology. Jewish leaders in Chile were “satisfied” with President Sebastián Piñera’s omission of borders, especially given Chile’s 400,000-strong Palestinian community, which is by far the largest outside of the Middle East. Arabs and Jews hold high positions in Chilean society, and Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno played his diplomatic role well when he thanked both Chile’s Palestinian and Jewish communities for their “valuable contributions” to the country.

But could other motives lie beneath Chile’s refusal to mention the pre-1967 borders? Chilean media outlet El Mercurio points to sources in the government that reference Chile’s own territorial gains in 1879 that are disputed by Bolivia and Peru—the latter of which has a pending case against Chile at The Hague. Speaking of territorial arguments, it’s possible that Argentina chose to recognize Palestine along the Green Line due to Palestinian sympathy in Argentina’s own struggle with the United Kingdom for sovereignty of Las Malvinas, otherwise known as the Falkland Islands. 

So what do these Latin American recognitions mean going forward? Is this a watershed moment that will lead to fully accepted Palestinian statehood across the world? One thing for sure is that Latin America has successfully leveraged its economic weathering of the Great Recession into diplomatic prowess. As AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini told CNN earlier this month, [the recognitions are] a show of “diplomatic muscularity.” Khatchik DerGhougassian, professor of international relations at Argentina’s Universidad de San Andrés, posits that “UNASUR can reach common decisions on the international stage, independently of what the United States or other powerhouses do.” The message here? Step aside, Washington.

However, this is not necessarily how it’s perceived on the ground. Saleh Jawad, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank town near Ramallah, offered: “The Latin American countries’ support is nice, it’s good, but it’s symbolic and it will not affect the situation, because what we need is recognition mainly from the United States… [and] secondly from Europe.” It is possible that this Latin American tidal wave could yield no measurable effect whatsoever.

Consider the fact that 90 countries recognized Palestine after its 1988 declaration of independence in Algiers. However, although there has been some progress since then toward Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, namely through the Madrid Peace Conference and subsequent Oslo Accords, not much has changed since 1988—and as Jawad believes, not much will change until the U.S. backs the Palestinian state.

Palestinian diplomats have a busy 2011 planned. Al-Maliki told the Palestine News Network that the PA is aiming to have most of the world recognize an independent Palestinian state by September 1. Before April, the PA will present a resolution to the UN General Assembly condemning Israeli settlement activity. The overwhelming majority of member nations are expected to approve it, but its true weight will likely rest with the U.S.—who wields veto power in the Security Council.  Palestinians have also weighed the possibility of seeking unilateral UN recognition in September as a “Plan B” to the now-stalled peace talks, for which Brazil would represent a vocal ally.

Palestinians have focused on Latin America through non-UN means as well. Walid Muaqqat, Palestinian ambassador to Argentina, revealed that the Palestinian delegation at the Summit of South American-Arab Countries will seek a formal declaration to recognize a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders next month in Lima. Until then, and in light of Peru’s recent recognition, al-Maliki will set his sights on the support of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Caribbean islands.

Nevertheless, as Palestine seeks to become a sovereign state fully recognized by the international community, the Palestinians can count on Latin America being in their corner.

*Ryan Berger
is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He works at Americas Quarterly and graduated from Emory University in 2009.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Juan Manuel Santos, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Sebastian Piñera, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Israel, Palestine

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