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.
About 100 countries around the world have recognized an independent Palestinian state, most in the 1980s, before the 1993 Oslo accords. After years of failed peace talks since then, the South American recognitions come amid growing skepticism that a negotiated solution is possible.
Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said his country's declaration of support for the Palestinians was part of a larger Middle East strategy independent of "hegemonic interferences," referring to the United States.
In an interview, he also said the Argentine government made its decision without consulting others, not even the politically active Jewish community in Buenos Aires.
"If the president of the Palestinian Authority asks us to recognize Palestine as an independent state, I do not see who else it is I am going to ask," Timerman said. "No one."
Timerman said he met with Palestinian leaders here and abroad and frequently discussed the issue of Palestinian statehood with the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
At the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic, the country's biggest Muslim cultural organization, the director, Samir Salech, recalled visits by well-known Palestinian activists and Abbas.
"We believe he came to seal an accord that gave support for the creation of a Palestinian state," explained Salech, saying the lobbying effort put the plight of the Palestinians on Argentina's radar.
Palestinian officials said that they and the governments they lobbied kept their discussions discreet, which made it difficult for Israel or Jewish groups to counter the effort.
"No one told us," said Aldo Donzis, president of the leading Jewish political umbrella organization here. "We found out the next day, from reading the papers."
The recognitions are expected to create a warm environment at a summit of the continent's leaders and heads of state from the Arab world that is tentatively scheduled for April in Lima, Peru. The Palestinians have been asking for a continent-wide declaration at that meeting that would call on Israel to freeze settlements in the occupied territories.
Such moves worry leaders in the Jewish community here, which is estimated to number 300,000 and has long had an open channel with Argentine governments.
The Jewish leadership has been particularly close to Fernandez de Kirchner, whose government has energetically pursued the Iranian operatives who investigators believe orchestrated the 1994 bombing of the country's largest Jewish cultural center.
But Donzis, the Jewish leader, said Argentina and other countries that supported the Palestinians failed to take into account thorny internal Palestinian politics, such as the influence Iran-backed Hamas has on the Palestinian leadership.
"This does not stimulate peace talks," he said. "The countries that are recognizing will be directly responsible for the next conflict."
Zacharia reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.