Palestinians seek global recognition through South America

Palestinian diplomats, seeking global recognition for an independent Palestine state, are taking advantage of South America's growing economic ties to the Arab world. Argentina, home to South America's largest Jewish community, posed a special challenge.
By Juan Forero and Janine Zacharia
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 7:45 PM

IN BUENOS AIRES Before a slew of South American countries recently recognized an independent Palestinian state in quick succession, a seasoned Palestinian diplomat quietly lobbied the government of one crucial country on the continent: Argentina.

Home to the region's largest Jewish community, Argentina posed a special challenge. But Walid Muaqqat, who has the status of Palestinian ambassador here, made sure things ran smoothly when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived for a 2009 tour.

Muaqqat also brought in Palestinian activists to talk about the difficulties of life in the Gaza Strip. And when he could, he buttonholed Argentine officials to make sure they got the Palestinian position on such prickly issues as the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Palestinian diplomats repeated the strategy across the continent last year, taking advantage of the region's growing economic ties to the Arab world and its eagerness to demonstrate its independence from Israel's powerful ally, the United States.

"We were concentrated on giving as much priority to this region, South America, as possible," said Muaqqat, 57, a diplomat in the region for 32 years. "It had an effect. They saw the whole panorama."

The effort by a small but active group of diplomats demonstrated the importance Palestinian leaders have placed on winning recognition of an independent state. With peace talks with Israel frozen, the Palestinian Authority is focusing on using the momentum from South America, where eight countries recognized Palestinian statehood in December and January, to win recognition in Europe. Palestinian diplomats contend that would provide a critical mass of support to propel the U.N. General Assembly to offer recognition later this year.

"Our next target is Western Europe," said Nabil Shaath, who is in charge of foreign affairs for Abbas's Fatah party. "I think there is a lot of readiness in Western Europe to recognize an independent Palestinian state."

In interviews, top Israeli diplomats played down the significance of the South American gestures, calling them largely symbolic. Far from pressuring Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, they said, the recognitions instead demonstrated that the Palestinians were forgoing peace talks.

"If they want something to happen," said Daniel Gazit, the Israeli ambassador in Buenos Aires, "they have to come back to the negotiating table."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said it was "very easy for the Palestinians" to win support from countries that have had little influence in the Middle East. "I don't think it's accidental that they went and started in Latin America - as far away a place as possible, not just away proximity-wise, geographically, but also far away politically," he said.

Yet Israel vigorously tried to forestall countries from joining Brazil and Argentina, both of which recognized an independent Palestinian state in December. Ayalon said he worked the phones, calling Latin American diplomats, and Netanyahu phoned Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, whose center-right government is close to Washington.

But Chile, which has the largest Palestinian community in the region, followed its larger neighbors on Jan. 7. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Paraguay also recognized a Palestinian state, and Uruguay says it will do so in March. Venezuela recognized Palestinian statehood in 2009.

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