Commentary: South America should stay away from Mideast quagmire

The Miami HeraldJanuary 17, 2011 

Following the recent decisions by Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador to officially recognize a state of Palestine, supporters of the Palestinian cause are preparing for their next big step: a South America-wide declaration recognizing a Palestinian state in a territory that would include East Jerusalem and other territories currently held by Israel.

The proposal is likely to be debated at a summit of South American and Arab countries to be held Feb. 16 in Lima, Peru. Organizers say the summit will be attended by nine South American leaders, including Brazil's new President Dilma Rousseff, and 11 Arab heads of state.

There is no consensus in South America on whether -- or how -- to recognize a Palestinian state.

Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay recognized a Palestine state along borders prior to the 1967 war, in which Israel took -- or regained, depending on which side you stand -- East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Venezuela is a fierce supporter of the Palestinian cause and Uruguay has announced that it will soon recognize a Palestinian state.

Chile has taken distance from the Brazilian-led pro-Palestine statements by recognizing a Palestinian state but without any reference to pre-1967 borders, while Peru says it has not yet decided what to do. Colombia says it will not recognize a Palestinian state until Israel and Palestinian leaders reach a peace agreement.

The issue is already raising tensions amid Palestinian and Jewish communities throughout the region.

Walid Muaqqat, Palestinian ambassador to Argentina, told me that there will be a proposal at the Lima summit ``to issue a final declaration recognizing a sovereign and independent Palestinian state in borders preceding June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian state's capital.'' That's what's mandated under United Nations resolutions demanding Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories, he added.

But Israel and the United States say the South American countries' offensive to recognize a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders is an obstacle to peace negotiations, noting that United Nations resolutions call for a negotiated solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A unilateral recognition without a peace agreement would violate U.N. mandates, they say.

What's worse, the current South American pro-Palestinian offensive will move the Palestinians further away from the negotiating table, Israeli diplomats say. If Palestinian leaders can create a critical mass of countries at the United Nations that recognize a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, they will try to force that on Israel, and tensions will worsen, they say.

Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, told me that a South America-wide recognition of a Palestinian state along the lines of the recent Brazilian declaration would be ``counter-productive.'' He added, ``Palestinians at this moment are refusing to return to the negotiating table. This will encourage them not to renew negotiations.''

Earlier this week, I asked Peru Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaúndewhether the Lima summit will produce a final declaration recognizing a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders. He responded that because the summit's agreements must be taken by consensus and some South American countries remain undecided or oppose the idea, ``it will be difficult to approve a commitment by all to act in that direction.''

My opinion: Most South American countries will attend the Lima summit for economic, rather than political, reasons. But Arab countries, alongside Brazil and Venezuela, may succeed in obtaining a final declaration that will come close to a regional recognition of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders.

That would be pretty one-sided. If South American countries are determined to jump into the quagmire of Middle Eastern politics -- at the risk of increasing tensions among their Palestinian and Jewish communities at home -- they should do it even-handedly.

It's OK to support creation of a Palestinian state -- there should be one, and soon -- and it's OK to put pressure on Israel's hard-line government to freeze the settlements in disputed areas and to withdraw from others.

But that should go alongside demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and that they give up their demand for the right of return of up to four million descendants of Palestinian refugees, which would amount to the demographic destruction of Israel.

South American leaders should either put pressure on both sides or stay out of the Middle Eastern mess.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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