Latin America: Southern discomfort

In 1947, Latin America formed a voting bloc important to the Zionist cause. Since then, the region’s influence has declined, prompting Israeli neglect.

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
First came Brazil, which publicly declared it recognized a Palestinian state last week. Then Argentina and Bolivia followed suit. Other countries in the region with left-leaning governments like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador aren’t far behind. But it isn’t only the usual suspects who are considering following the same path. Even countries with right-leaning governments like Peru and Chile are deliberating the option.
“Unfortunate and unhelpful,” were the words used Monday by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to express Jerusalem’s dismay with the situation in Latin America. “Not only do these declarations discourage Palestinians to return to the negotiating table but they also harden their positions. Not only are Palestinians adding to their preconditions regarding the building moratorium in the West Bank, now they’re asking for recognition of a state within the 1967 borders.”
So how has Israel found itself so seemingly powerless in the region? Dina Vann-Siegel, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, warned against making oversimplifications.
“There are different layers that need to be taken into consideration,” she said in an interview on Monday. “One is the Middle East situation itself, what is happening on the ground. But another is the regional context. If you don’t understand that, then all you’re left saying is ‘they’re against us’ and that is not the case.”
Vann-Siegel points at a number of reasons why Latin America has taken the lead in recognizing a Palestinian state. Some are shared, but some are particular to specific countries.
Regarding Brazil, she said its newfound political and financial confidence has a lot to do with its current policy-making decisions.
“They’ve tried to show they had a different way of engaging the world from the US,” she said. “They have borders with seven nations and are proud of having good relations with all of them. Some also tie this to the fact that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is leaving office.” Once Brazil came out with its statement, Argentina, its Mercosur trade bloc partner, felt obliged to support it, Vann-Siegel said.
“One thing I was told was that Argentina to Brazil is kind of like what Mexico is to the US,” she explained.
Another reason why Buenos Aires might have been keen to throw its political weight behind the declaration was its dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands, which calls the Malvinas and lays claim to.
“Every country has its own rationale,” Vann-Siegel said. “Argentina is against the UK’s possession of the Malvinas as a matter of principle, and its president has made an analogy with Israel’s possession of the West Bank and Golan Heights.”
Chile, with its sizable, influential and affluent Palestinian community, however, is a completely different case than the previous two.
“Chile is the third layer – the domestic element,” she said. “In these countries, there are large Palestinian and Arab communities which are becoming more militant with regard to the Palestinian issue.
Both the Palestinian and Jewish community are vying for Chile to take a position or to abstain.”
Gabriel Zaliasnik, president of the Jewish community in Chile, spoke to The Jerusalem Post on Monday about his efforts to prevent Santiago from going the way of its neighbors.
“The government is under a lot pressure from the Jewish community and the Palestinian community, which has 250,000 members and outsizes us 20 times,” he said.
“I draw an analogy with the Davidka [a loud but inefficient artillery piece made by the IDF during the War of Independence].
We try to make a lot of noise.
Maybe we can win this time. It’s a miracle that in Chile we are so far holding the line.”
One of the reasons the local government has balked at joining the declaration is its legal implications. Santiago worries recognizing Palestinian rights might be used by Bolivia and Peru to bolster their claim to territories occupied by Chile 100 years ago.
THE CAUSES behind Israel’s weakness in the region are varied and complex, although this has not always been the case. There was a time when the Zionist cause had considerably more clout in Latin America.
When the UN’s partition plan came to the floor of the General Assembly for a vote in 1947, supporters of Zionism turned much of their attention toward Latin America. At the time, there were fewer member states in the UN making the region’s 20 countries a much more influential voting bloc than today. Recognizing this, Jewish politicians, businessmen and members of local Jewish communities went to work pulling strings and applying pressure on governments to support the proposal. Their efforts were successful: 11 Latin American countries voted in favor, the rest abstained and only Cuba opposed. But it appears little of that influence remains.
If one looks for reasons why, some point a finger at Jerusalem.
“For 22 years no Israeli foreign minister visited the region,” Marcos Peckel, president of the Colombian Jewish Community Confederation, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “The last visitor was [Avigdor] Lieberman who came to visit Argentina, Brazil and Chile last year. That’s why we’re seeing this happening.”
A Foreign Ministry official admitted neglect, but added that Lieberman’s recent visit was part of an effort to rectify that mistake.
“Traditional diplomacy, reaching out to all four corners of the world, has been neglected and this government has tried to do that,” the official said. “Because of the peace process and other pressing issues we’ve neglected countries around the world, such as in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the foreign minister and deputy minister have tried to remedy that.”
But he warned the odds might be stacked against Israel regardless of its diplomacy.
“At the end of the day, in each of these capitals you have one Israeli embassy and 20 embassies of Muslim countries,” he said. “In many cases the local Muslim population outnumbers local Jews.
Sometimes it’s a numbers game.”
So far, Peckel’s Colombia is the only country in the region which has come out on the record as saying it will not support the declaration.
“I believe that Colombia traditionally has had a different position with regard to many other Latin American countries not only on Israel but also on the US,” Peckel said. “Colombia has the best relations with Israel of all Latin American nations and is it’s second biggest trade partner in the region.”
Still, the Colombian Jewish leader said that if all the other Latin America countries were to join the declaration one by one, he wasn’t sure whether Bogota could resist.
“If all of Latin America will recognize the statement of Brazil and Argentina, maybe they will join too,” he said. “Who knows what happens in the future?