In late 2010 and early 2011, a long list of Latin American countries suddenly recognized the existence of an independent Palestinian state. These countries included both regional powers (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) and their smaller neighbors (Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay). The wave of diplomatic recognition seemed to emerge out of nowhere. But it actually reflected an aggressive Palestinian lobbying campaign that was championed by former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who left office on January 1.
The Washington Post noted that Palestinian officials were “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.” They were also taking advantage of Israeli and U.S. neglect. After being very involved in (and receiving crucial diplomatic support from) Latin America during its early history, Israel had become somewhat disengaged from the region, at a time when leaders such as Lula and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were busy cultivating pro-Palestinian sentiment. As for the Obama administration, it has treated Latin America as a complete afterthought. Thus, the remarkable success of the Palestinian diplomatic push caught both Jerusalem and Washington by surprise.
But now, it appears, the trend of recognizing Palestinian statehood has been reversed, or at least halted. Earlier this month, citing comments from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, the Jerusalem Post reported that “a majority of the 35 countries in Latin America are either against recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN in September, or are having second thoughts.” Ayalon told the Post that Israel had “stopped the [Palestinian] momentum in Latin America.”
His recent trip to the region was part of a larger Israeli drive to reduce global support for immediate Palestinian statehood. While Israel urges foreign governments to oppose Palestinian recognition, the Palestinians themselves are hopelessly divided between the factions of Fatah and Hamas, the latter of which remains an unrepentant terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. A Palestinian “unity” meeting originally scheduled for this week in Cairo was called off when the two sides could not agree on a prime minister. Given these conditions, the idea that a Palestinian state should be recognized by the United Nations in September seems foolish.
Beyond the Palestinian question, Israel has good reason to increase its diplomatic activity in the Western Hemisphere. Left-wing Latin American politicians have traditionally been hostile toward the United States, and they are now depicting Jerusalem as a mere puppet of Washington. Anti-Semitism remains widespread in Latin America, and especially in Argentina, a country with a deeply rooted fascist history. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen a disturbing jump in anti-Semitic violence. “Across Latin America, Jewish leaders say they are contending with a new level of anti-Semitism,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in August 2009, observing that the roots of this spike could be traced back to the December 2008 war in Gaza. “From La Paz, Bolivia, to Panama City, political expressions have turned increasingly derogatory, with graffiti and banners equating the Israel conflict with Nazism. There have been bomb threats in synagogues throughout the region.”
We should also note many South American countries are home to large Arab populations. For example, some 300,000 Palestinian nationals reside in Chile, compared with only 30,000 Jews. Argentina has 3.5 million people of Arabic descent but only 182,000 Jews. Brazil has 1.5 million Arabs and fewer than 96,000 Jews. These numbers cannot be separated from the recent wave of Palestinian statehood recognition.
Finally, the Iranian theocracy has greatly expanded its strategic presence in the Western Hemisphere, mostly through its alliance with Venezuela but also through burgeoning partnerships with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, all of which have left-populist governments. (Last month, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño declared that “Iran is one of Ecuador’s most strategic partners in political and economic fields and we would like all bilateral agreements and joint projects become operational.”) Meanwhile, in return for economic concessions, the Argentine government has reportedly offered to suspend investigations of two Iranian-backed terrorist bombings that struck the Israeli embassy (in 1992) and the AMIA Jewish Community Center (in 1994) in Buenos Aires. (The two attacks killed or wounded hundreds.) Iran’s economic relationships in Latin America have helped it to withstand the pain of global sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear program, which poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. Moreover, a 2009 Israeli foreign ministry report obtained by the Associated Press indicated that Venezuela and Bolivia are supplying Iran with uranium.
The Iranian push into Latin America should further galvanize Israeli diplomats to rejuvenate their efforts in the region. For too long, Jerusalem was a passive participant in hemispheric affairs. Thankfully, its approach is now changing, and not a minute too soon.
(Read this article in Spanish here.)