Southern Discomfort

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What is behind the rush of South American countries to recognize a unilaterally declared "free and independent" state of Palestine? Answer: a myriad of contributing factors, and a single overriding one.  

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. As soon as Lula da Silva, Brazil's outgoing president, hailed 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 would all follow suit, as they have done. A delighted Jimmy Carter, speaking in São Paolo, lauded Brazil for facilitating the "peace process"—the same peace process that any such unilateral declaration would summarily abort. 

The irony is that, in the Latin American context, Brazil, like Argentina and Uruguay, is considered friendly to Israel. In March 2010, "Lula" became his country's first head of state to visit Jerusalem. With Brasília's encouragement, Israel was the first state outside the region to sign a free-trade agreement with the Mercosur group made up of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Indeed, over half of Israel's exports to Latin America go to Brazil. But two months after his trip to Israel, Lula traveled to Iran (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already visited Brazil in November 2009), and now Uruguay, one of the continent's more enlightened countries, is sending a parliamentary delegation to Iran. Even the free-trade agreement with Mercosur has been offset by a virtual trade deal between Mercosur and sham-Palestine.  

For Israel, this is all the more discouraging in light of the concerted efforts by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to resuscitate Jerusalem's largely dormant diplomacy in South America, complete with visits to the region and a conference of Latin American parliamentarians hosted at the Knesset in Jerusalem. And if things stand so poorly with Israel's friends, there can be no delusions at all in connection with outright adversaries like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Evo Morales's Bolivia. The hostility of these two governments toward Israel, and their alliance with Iran, are unambiguous. Morales has not only recognized "Palestine" but added the charge of genocide against Israel. In 2009, during the war to stop Hamas's cross-border aggression into Israel, he broke diplomatic ties with the Jewish state and tarred its leaders as war criminals. Venezuela did the same.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian authority, has been pursuing a discreet diplomatic blitz in Latin America, part of a larger strategy aimed at gaining the endorsement of the European Union, the UN General Assembly, and ultimately the Security Council for the creation of a Fatah-led Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza—without engaging in bargaining with Israel. If successful, Abbas's approach, openly flouting signed agreements between the PA and Israel, involving no compromises on the "right of return," and omitting any recognition of Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state, would vindicate Yasir Arafat's strategy, adopted by the Palestinian National Council in 1974, of approaching the destruction of Israel in phases.

Another inescapable factor in the mix is that, internationally, Washington's influence in the region has been waning while Tehran's clout is growing. The upshot, according to the expatriate Brazilian firebrand Olavo de Carvalho, is that not a single politician remains in Brazil who is openly pro-Israel—a condition that seems increasingly widespread among Latin American leaders in general. And this brings us to the single overriding factor in the continent's orientation toward the Middle East: namely, the essentially homogenous thinking of most of its political elites.

That this thinking veers sharply Left is a well-documented fact. Less well known is the indebtedness of much of today's political class to the São Paolo forum, a group established jointly by Lula and Cuba's Fidel Castro in order to advance a "consensual unity of action" among Latin American countries. Founded in 1990, the Forum has exercised an inordinate influence on the current crop of leaders; most of those now in power are, in fact, Forum alumni. The views inculcated by its teachings, inherently anti-Western and essentially unsympathetic to Israel's cause, make it all but inevitable that when it comes to a conflict between the dictates of traditional international law and sovereignty on the one hand, and the wishes of the Palestinians on the other, the latter will win the nod.

In these circumstances, Israel can do little more than to continue trying to cultivate decent bilateral relations with its friends while holding out little expectation of being able to influence their attitudes on either the Palestinian issue or the larger Arab-Israel conflict.

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