SANTIAGO, Chile — With peace talks going nowhere fast, the Palestinian Authority has mounted a new political battleground in South America, persuading a handful of countries to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine.
Chile, with the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab world, is feeling the heat.
The powerful Palestinian community in Chile is lobbying the government to recognize the state of Palestine with its 1967 borders, following the footsteps of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, which did so last month. Uruguay said it would recognize Palestine in early January and Paraguay, El Salvador and Peru are poised to do the same.
Now, Palestinian efforts in the region are focused on Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Talks between Israelis and Palestinians stalled in September when Israel refused to extend a moratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority is now campaigning for unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967.
The sweeping tide of recognition in Latin America and elsewhere, it hopes, will ultimately tip the balance in its favor in the European Union and the United Nations.
Several Latin American countries had recognized a Palestinian state prior to the current lobbying effort, including Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Israeli diplomatic sources told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia said that “the fear is that what began as a wave of support for Palestine from Latin America may turn into a global, unstoppable diplomatic tsunami.”
Pinera plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Brazil today, when both will attend President Dilma Rousseff’s inaugural ceremony.
The meeting will top off weeks of a political tug-of-war in the presidential palace, with a flurry of top-level meetings with Israeli and Palestinian diplomats, representatives of the Arab League in Chile, members of the Palestinian and Jewish communities and congressional groups.
Shortly before Christmas, dozens of members of Congress across the ideological divide — many of them of Arab origin — introduced parallel motions in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to approve “the recognition of the Palestinian State based on the borders of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, alongside the State of Israel.”
“We are proposing something we believe is extremely reasonable, respectful of international law and in line with United Nations resolutions," said Congressman Marcelo Diaz, president of the Chamber of Deputies’ Foreign Affairs Commission.
Palestinian diplomatic offices were opened in Santiago in 1994, and Chile has an embassy in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Chile has long recognized the right to an independent Palestinian state, and Pinera said in November that he will uphold that position. But he's unsure about whether to endorse the 1967 borders.
It’s a tricky situation. Latin American countries are increasingly breaking loose from Washington’s foreign policy directives. But Pinera cares about Chile's relationship with the U.S. more than many of the region's left-wing leaders, and must deal with a quite strong, albeit small, Jewish lobby.
At the same time, however, Chile has more than 300,000 Palestinians, the largest population outside the Middle East.
Daniel Jadue, a member of the Palestinian Federation in Chile, said that despite its size, the Palestinian community has become a real political force only recently.
The first Palestinian immigrants, mostly Christian, arrived in Chile in the early 20th century to work in commerce. Decades later and to this day, Chileans of Palestinian origin boast some of the biggest fortunes in the country and hold top positions in government, politics, business and academic circles, rubbing elbows with conspicuous members of the 18,000-strong Jewish community.
Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one thing is sure: For more than a century, Palestinians and Jews in Chile have worked side-by-side in harmony, a unique example of peaceful coexistence, says the Jewish Community of Chile, that would be imperiled by the “reckless and counterproductive” decision to unilaterally recognize the Palestinian State, “needlessly importing the Middle East conflict to Chile.”
Center-left Congressman Ramon Farias, member of the parliamentary Israeli-Chilean Group of Friends, said unilateral recognition would set a dangerous precedent for Chile as a country disrespectful of international bodies and negotiations.
“Ignoring the international peace process and unilaterally recognizing Palestine would undermine our credibility at the Hague, which is currently settling a dispute over maritime borders presented by Peru against Chile,” he said.
In a public statement, the Israeli Embassy in Chile argued that the Palestinian campaign for unilateral recognition of statehood “is a negation of reality.” According to the embassy, “it is evident that if Abbas doesn’t resolve the problem of Hamas, he will not achieve the establishment of a Palestinian State, even if the entire universe recognizes it.”
But the Chilean decision may hinge more on Pinera’s political instincts than on the political realism of Israeli or Palestinian officials.
“Pinera is very concerned about his international image, his ranking in polls and his impact on public opinion," said Daniel Jadue. "He has an acute business and political intuition and knows he can profit politically from recognizing the state of Palestine, something the more progressive previous governments never dared to do."