Gabriel Zaliasnik, president of the Jewish community in Chile, thinks Israel’s Foreign Ministry is making a big mistake.
Having spent the last few weeks battling local pro-Palestinian groups in an effort to influence his government not to recognize Palestinian statehood, Zaliasnik believes the statement that eventually emerged from Santiago last Friday accepting Palestinian independence while acknowledging Israel’s right to security was not the diplomatic debacle some made it out to be, but in fact was a victory of sorts.
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“I think the Israeli foreign minister is making a mistake in considering the statement a defeat,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“What you should be concerned with is the content of the recognition, which acknowledges Israel and doesn’t mention borders. I wouldn’t get excessively over-concerned because it recognized a Palestinian state.”
Zaliasnik, 43, is the youngest-ever leader of Chile’s 25,000-strong Jewish community “by far,” he said.
A lawyer by profession, he made a name for himself representing several high-profile clients, including former Argentinean president Carlos Menem.
“Someone told me that to make the case you have to be a good criminal lawyer,” he joked. “It’s a very hard case.”
The son of a Chilean mother and Argentinean father whose parents emigrated to South America from Europe, he was a member of the Beitar youth movement, but he assumed a leadership role in the Jewish community only during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“For many years I dedicated myself only to my profession, but after the Second Lebanon War the media was so hateful and our leadership performing so badly I came out and was offered to become president,” he recalled.
Chile’s Jewish community is affluent and influential, he said. Its
members are “academics, scientists, artists and painters.” Its most
famous member is television personality Don Francisco, born Mario Luis
Kreutzberger Blumenfeld, who hosts the long-running Sabado Gigante
variety show, which has loyal viewers throughout South America.
“Don Francisco comes to synagogue for Yom Kippur and often helps the community,” Zaliasnik said.
Still, the Jewish community is vastly outnumbered by the country’s
Palestinian population, the largest on the continent, which numbers up
to 400,000 people. In recent years Chileans of Palestinian origin, who
are mostly Christian, have become increasingly vocal in their support of
the Palestinian cause.
“Historically we’ve had good relations,” Zaliasnik said of ties between
Jews and Palestinians in Chile. “In the past 10 years they have
deteriorated a little bit because the Middle East conflict has become
more on the agenda.
Some members of the Palestinian community have pushed their representatives to use their power in the country.”
When Brazil recognized Palestinian statehood in early December, Chile
was ready to follow suit immediately, sources said. However, an
important meeting between Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and former
Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar – who is a friend of Israel and
happened to be visiting Chile at the time – combined with pressure from
the local Jewish community and two late-night phone calls from Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Pinera, managed to postpone the planned
“It was a miracle it took so long for the proclamation to come out,” Zaliasnik said.
“We decided to fight the core issues: No to any reference to
final-status boundaries on the Green Line or 1967 borders; that
Palestinians had to negotiate directly with Israel; and third, that any
Chilean statement explicitly recognize the right of Israel to live in
secure borders. That’s what we were fighting for.”
Dina Vann-Segal, of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin
American Institute, agreed with Zaliasnik’s assessment that Israel had
not “lost” Chile.
“It’s important to point out that once the process was unleashed, it was
not a blanket deal,” she said in an email last Sunday. “Every country
was different and their statements reflected their own local, regional
and global dynamics. Chile acted responsibly given all the circumstances
and pressures. Its statement is not that different from what the US’s
position is, and both its government and the community should be given
their due credit.”
The next battleground between pro-Israel and pro- Palestinian groups
over Latin American recognition of Palestinian statehood will be in
Lima, Peru, where the third Latin American-Arab summit will be held in
“I feel Colombia won’t recognize Palestinian statehood,” Zaliasnik
opined. “I read the quotes of the Colombian foreign minister in Bogota
on the issue. My feeling is that Mexico could feel like it has to follow
us, but they don’t have a Palestinian lobby. Peru doesn’t have a
Palestinian lobby either, but they are hosting an Arab League summit, so
it may affect Peruvian President Alan Garcia. Of the three, Peru is the
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