Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Palestina Si? No!

What's behind the rush of South American countries to recognize "Palestine?" A myriad of disheartening factors – outlined below – combine to provide perspective. Overriding them all, though, is the pervasive left-wing Latin American political culture that sees the Palestinians, particularly those led by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, through rose-tinted glasses – as progressive underdogs ready to compromise for peace, confronting an unyielding right-wing Israeli government, not to mention the nuisance of Hamas's control of Gaza. Fatah has traduced Israel while putting its own, ostensibly moderate, best foot forward. In such a climate, it would be unthinkable – notions of traditional international law and sovereignty notwithstanding – to say "no" to the Palestinians.

In matters of foreign policy, much of South America follows the lead of Brazil whose regional influence nowadays far exceeds that of the United States. When outgoing President Lula da Silva (his protégée Dilma Roussef replaces him in January) recognized the "legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people for a secure, united, democratic and economically viable state coexisting peacefully with Israel" it was predictable that Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador also countries considered "friendly" toward Israel, would follow suit. A delighted Jimmy Carter, speaking in Sao Paolo, lauded Brazil for facilitating the peace process.

While Brazilian fire-brand essayist Olavo de Carvalho maintains that there is no politician left in his former homeland who is openly pro-Israel, in the Latin American context Brazil is still considered friendly toward the Jewish state. In March 2010, "Lula" became his country's first head of state to visit Jerusalem. But in May Lula travelled to Iran reciprocating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Brazil in November 2009. With Brasília's encouragement, Israel was the first state outside the region to sign a free trade agreement with the Mercosur group of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Indeed, over half of Israel's exports to Latin America go to Brazil. Now, however, this has been offset by a virtual trade deal between Mercosur and sham-Palestine. Uruguay, one of continent's more enlightened countries, is adding insult to injury by sending a parliamentary delegation to Iran.

In the face of all this, Israel can do little more than pursue good bilateral relations with its friends while holding out small expectation of being able to influence their attitudes on the Arab-Israel conflict. All the more discouraging is the fact that these setbacks come despite concerted efforts in 2009 by Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to resuscitate Jerusalem's largely dormant diplomacy in South America. Lieberman visited the region, the ministry hosted a Conference of Latin American Parliamentarians at the Knesset, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon participated in an annual Organization of American States conference in Honduras.

In connection with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Evo Morales's Bolivia, Israel can allow itself no delusions; their hostility toward Israel and alliance with Iran is unambiguous. Morales has not only recognized Palestine but thrown in the charge of "genocide" against Israel. In 2009, during Israel's war to stop Hamas's cross-border aggression, Morales broke diplomatic ties with Israel and tarred its leaders as war criminals. Venezuela, too, broke relations with Israel over invented "massacres" in Gaza.

In a region intrinsically hospitable to the Arab cause – even in 1947, only 13 of the then 20 Latin American member nations voted in favor of partitioning Palestine, though Uruguay and Guatemala were instrumental in pushing for passage – Abbas's envoys have pursued a discreet diplomatic blitz, part of a larger strategy aimed at gaining European Union, UN General Assembly, and ultimately UN Security Council endorsement for the creation of a Fatah-led Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza without having to engage in bargaining with Israel. In this way, Fatah would have to make no compromises on refugees nor be obliged to recognize Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. If successful, Abbas's approach would be a vindication of Yasir Arafat's analysis adopted by the Palestinian National Council in 1974 that Israel could only be destroyed in phases.

Of course, it cannot help that Washington's influence in the region has been waning while Teheran's clout is growing. In the final analysis, however, Israel-based Brazilian journalist Michel Gawendo posits, perhaps the determinative factor to Israel's Latin America quandary is the homogenous thinking of the continent's leaders. Their political socialization has come under inordinate influence from the Sao Paulo Forum, founded jointly by Lula and Fidel Castro. This little-known amalgamation of left-leaning elites has developed a coherent set of values about politics and policy that is inherently anti-Western and essentially unsympathetic to Israel's cause. Most leaders now in power, Lula himself has noted, are forum alumni.

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