Tide of Recognition

With countries lining up to recognize the ‘state of Palestine,’ South America has dived fully into the turbulent waters of the Middle East

Venezuelan embrace (photo credit: Associated Press)
Venezuelan embrace
(photo credit: Associated Press)
USUALLY, JANUARY AND February are lazy summer months in Argentina and Brazil.
Millions of locals and tourists relax, sunbathe, and gaze at the infinite sea. But this summer will certainly not be relaxed – at least not on the diplomatic front.
Just months before the end of his term, on December 1, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva formalized Brazil’s recognition of Palestine in a letter to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Da Silva also raised the level of the diplomatic delegations of Brazil and Palestine, which will be turned into embassies in the first half of 2011.
Three days after the Brazilian declaration, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner also sent a letter to PA President Mahmoud Abbas informing him that “the Argentine government recognizes Palestine as a free and independent state within the 1967 borders and in agreement with the terms which both sides will determine during the negotiation process.”
Brazil, with a population of 190 million, and Argentina, with a population of 40 million, are the two major players in the MERCOSUR (the “Southern Common Market”), the economic and political alliance among the South American countries, which also includes the small states of Uruguay, with a population of 3 million and Paraguay, with its population of close to 7 million. Not surprisingly, Deputy Foreign Minister Roberto Conde told AFP in December that “Uruguay will certainly follow the same path as Argentina in 2011.”
Associate members of MERCOSUR include Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Columbia and Peru, and the wave of recognition has swept over most of these countries too. On December 22, at the MERCOSUR presidents’ meeting in Foz do Iguazu, in Brazil, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales announced that his country recognizes Palestine as an independent state within the 1967 borders. On December 24, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa followed suit.
On January 7, Chile recognized Palestine “as a free, independent and sovereign state.”
Announcing this, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera hoped that his country’s gesture would contribute to a solution to the Middle East conflict namely, “a Palestinian state and a State of Israel that can live in peace and prosperity and recognized frontiers with secure borders.”
In contrast, Colombia, more closely aligned with the US than the other countries, “will not recognize the state of Palestine until there is a peace agreement with Israel,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin told El Tiempo, a Bogota newspaper, on January 2 – but did add that her country “acknowledges the Palestinian desire to be an independent country.”
Venezuela, closely aligned with Iran, has long supported the Palestinian state. Officials in Paraguay and Peru say they are still analyzing the issue and have not reached a decision yet.
With these declarations, motivated by domestic, regional and international interests, South America has dived fully into the turbulent waters of the Middle East.
IN 1947, 11 LATIN AMERICAN countries voted in favor of the United Nations Resolution establishing the State of Israel; eight abstained and only Cuba opposed. In contrast, today, there is almost unanimous support for the Palestinian cause. And two countries, Venezuela and Bolivia, have yet to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, which they broke off during the “Cast Lead” operation during the winter of 2008-2009.
The Palestinians have long been seeking international recognition of the state that they declared in 1988. Over the past few years, and with greater intensity as the peace talks fail, the Palestinians have engaged in an international diplomatic blitz to gain recognition, so that they can take their demands to the UN General Assembly and Security Council. And since most of these Latin American countries are led by center-left governments, the Palestinians have found a very sympathetic ear in the hemisphere.
But the decision to support unilateral Palestinian nationhood is not based solely on sympathy for the Palestinian case. The recognition of the Palestinian state, which most of the West, and especially the United States, oppose, is an example of the efforts that the region is making to break free of American power and influence. Brazil, in particular under da Silva’s presidency, is seeking to establish itself as a world power, wielding its own influence.
In fact, Brazil is one of only four nations – along with Germany, Japan and India – that is seeking to join the exclusive club of permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Trade plays an important role in these alliances. China is Brazil’s main trade partner and there is also extensive trade with India; trade with the US totals less than one-third of Brazil’s foreign sales. The main foreign investments in Argentina come from Spain. South America is now enjoying the delights of commodity boom created by China and India. As these markets become increasingly important, South-South relationships intensify and relationships with the US are becoming less significant.
The wave of recognition also reflects Iran’s growing presence in the region. Venezuela, which is currently seeking to become a member of MERCOSUR, has long recognized Palestine as a sovereign state, and its president, Hugo Chavez, is Iran’s main ally in the region. Indeed, the Chavez administration has signed some 200 cooperation agreements with Iran. But Iran’s influence is not limited to Venezuela, and South American states, including the ALBA bloc (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) are among the few friends that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has in the world.
Iran’s grand ally in the southwestern hemisphere is Venezuela, an important ally of Argentina as well. The Argentine government bears a debt of honour to Chavez ever since Venezuela was one of the few countries to back it with money in the wake of Argentina’s 2001/2002 economic crisis. Aftetr the state defaulted on government-issued bonds and the Argentine Treasury had difficulty obtaining financial aid, Chavez’s money was well received. In return, in 2007, Kirchner’s administration was Venezuela’s principal supporter in its bid to join MERCOSUR.
When, at a press conference during his visit to Argentina in November 2009, President Shimon Peres criticized the Iran-Venezuela alliance, President Kirchner replied tersely that “no one can choose our friends.”
In addition, throughout Latin America, large communities of Arabs are beginning to wield their political weight. According to the Arab Islamic Organization, there are 6 million Arabs in Latin America, compared to less than 600,000 Jews.
And Israel has not done much to further its own cause. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official acknowledged that Israel has not paid enough diplomatic attention to South America, due both to its Euro- and US-centric policies and to an assumption that the region was largely friendly to Israel.
Only recently has the Foreign Ministry begun to pay more attention to the region, with visits by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Peres.
Paradoxically, at least economically, the region, with the exception of Venezuela under Chavez and Bolivia under Morales, has maintained good relationships with Israel. In December 2007, MERCOSUR and Israel signed a free trade agreement, the first outside the region for the South American bloc. The agreement is scheduled to go into effect this year – but Argentina, which was the country that first proposed the agreement, has yet to sign it.
In March last year, da Silva became the first Brazilian head of state to make an official visit to Israel. But only two months after his visit to Israel, da Silva traveled to Iran, Bolivia signed agreements with Tehran, in October 2009, and Uruguay is expected to be sending a parliamentary delegation to Iran soon.
THE US, ISRAELAND THE LOCAL Jewish communities have responded strongly and critically to recognition of Palestine. “We do not look favorably upon this line of conduct,” said Philip Crowley, spokesman for the US State Department, adding, “We believe that any unilateral action is counterproductive.”
On December 15, the US House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution opposing the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and urging the White House to “deny recognition to any unilaterally declared Palestinian state and veto any resolution by the United Nations Security Council to establish or recognize a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated by the two parties.”
Congresswoman Iliana Ros-Lehtinen, the upcoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, outgoing Chair Howard Berman and the outgoing Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Eliot Engel have been actively reaching out to Latin American countries to express their concern and to urge them either to reconsider or abstain from recognizing a Palestinian state.
Following Argentina’s decision, the Israel Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement: “Recognition of a Palestinian state is a violation of the interim agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1995, which established that the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be discussed and solved through negotiations.”
Latin American Jewish Congress (LAJC) head, Jack Terpins, condemns the decision unequivocally. “This is a populist position adopted by governments, and surely this attitude will be followed by other countries in the region,” he tells The Report. “Each government has the right to state what it considers proper in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, we question the statements about border issues and… we believe that only the actors involved in the negotiations have the right to discuss these issues. These statements fuel the radicalization of the Palestinians and pull them away from dialogue and direct negotiations.
“All of the Jewish communities in the region are concerned about the situation,” Terpins continues, “worried that their countries are importing a conflict from another region into our latitudes. This will only lead to hostility and radicalization.
In Latin America, Jews and Arabs have lived together for many decades in peace and harmony. We have our differences, we are aware of them, but this does not prevent us from maintaining a good relationship.”
Jewish community leaders from Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have all contacted the authorities of their countries, expressing their disapproval. In Argentina, AMIA Jewish community president Guillermo Borger met Chancellor Hector Timerman in December to express the Jewish community’s discomfort regarding the recognition of Palestine. Borger tells The Report, “It is not appropriate that Argentina recognize a free and independent Palestinian state without demanding that they take responsibility and end all aggression against the State of Israel and its people.”
In response, the Argentinean Arab Federation (FEARAB) issued a statement unprecedented in its hostility, in which it announced that “AMIA, once again, has provided additional proof that it works for the interests of Israel.” Referring to the attack on the AMIAcenter in 1994, the statement continued, “Having been the victim of an attack does not grant impunity or the right to speak against the sovereign decisions of our country. AMIA claims that Israel is the sole actor in the Middle East to have a relationship with our country...
Zionism does not recognize the existence of the other as an equal in the human species. Once again, AMIA has shown that hatred is its true face.”
“The Middle East conflict, which used to be absent from the regional agenda, is now constantly introduced, resulting in strained relations between Jewish and Arab communities that, until very recently... coexisted peacefully,” observes Siegal Vann.
The Argentine Jewish community is the largest in Latin-America, with more than 175,000 Jews in Buenos Aires alone. In an attempt to mollify the Jewish community, Timerman indicated that the Argentinean president will visit Israel in the near future.
Brazil’s new government, under President Dilma Rousseff, is also attempting to maintain its friendly relations with the Brazilian Jewish community, which numbers some 95,000 and wields great economic and cultural influence in the country. “The initiative is in accordance with Brazil’s historical willingness to contribute to the peace process between Israel and Palestine, whose direct negotiations are currently on hold, and it is in line with UN resolutions.
The relations between Brazil and Israel have never been as strong. The ties between both countries have been strengthened throughout the years, simultaneously and without harm to the initiative to establish closer ties with the Arab and Muslim world,” an official Brazilian statement read.
A summit of Latin American and Arab countries is scheduled to take place on February 16 in Peru, providing Peru and Paraguay with the opportunity to ride the tide of recognition.