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Brazil and Argentina recognize Palestine — why now?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva raise their arms in a show of unity in Salvador in Baha state in Brazil, Nov. 20, 2009. Subsequent to a request by Abbas, Lula recently recognized a Palestinian state. (Fotos Gov/BA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva raise their arms in a show of unity in Salvador in Baha state in Brazil, Nov. 20, 2009. Subsequent to a request by Abbas, Lula recently recognized a Palestinian state. (Fotos Gov/BA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Many in Latin America and around the world were asking one question following the news that Brazil and Argentina had recognized the state of Palestine in the West Bank: Why now?

Among the answers, PLO envoy to Washington Maen Areikat told JTA, was the frustration with the stops and starts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he said created the atmospherics ripe for recognition.

“No one can deny the pressure that will be created on Israel if the international community” recognizes a Palestinian state inside the 1967 borders, Areikat said.

The specific timing was the result of cultivation by the Palestinian leadership and the vacuum created by the collapse of the direct peace talks. Last week, the Obama administration announced it was officially ending its effort to get Israel to agree to an additional temporary West Bank settlement freeze as a lure to draw the Palestinians back to the peace talks. Instead, indirect shuttle diplomacy, with the United States acting as the go-between, has resumed.

Latin America watchers also said the moves last week making the two South American countries among the continent’s first to recognize Palestine was part of the periodic shucking-off of U.S. influence in Latin America. Uruguay is expected to follow suit in early 2011.

Areikat said the initiative arose when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toured Latin America a year ago. Abbas wanted to add the Latin American countries to the more than 100 countries that have recognized a Palestinian state since the PLO declared one in 1988, Areikat said.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said the flurry of recognitions suggested a coordinated effort to pressure Israel in talks with the Palestinians. He noted that Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, also has toured the continent recently.

“It’s deeply disappointing,” Mariaschin said of the announcements by Argentina and Brazil. “Going back to its inception, Israel has had good diplomatic relations with Latin America.”

South American countries voted overwhelmingly on Nov. 29, 1947 to recognize the new Jewish state. Until now, the continent has been the only bulwark in the developing world against efforts to move Palestinian statehood along at a faster pace than Israel would like.

Over the decades, South America has fluctuated on Israel policy — a function of the fraught relations many of the countries have had with the United States, Israel’s closest ally.

Brazil, particularly, under the leadership of President Lula Inacio Lula da Silva, has sought to establish itself as a major power. It is among four nations — with Germany, Japan and India — seeking to expand the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council beyond its current five members, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

“Brazil under Lula has wanted to show it’s independent for a while,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Latin America subcommittee.

Brazil is the strongest member of Mercosur, a common market that also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and these countries often follow its lead on foreign policy.

This year, Brazil joined Turkey in attempting to negotiate an agreement with Iran that would allow inspectors to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities; Western nations rejected the deal’s strictures as too weak.

Lula also is on his way out — his handpicked successor, Dilma Roussef, won this year’s presidential elections — and he has his eye on his legacy, analysts said.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry in its Dec. 3 statement announcing recognition said “the initiative is in accordance with Brazil’s historical willingness to contribute to the peace process between Israel and Palestine, whose direct negotiations are currently on hold, and it is in line with U.N. resolutions.”

The statement emphasized Brazil’s desire for close ties with Israel, noting Lula’s visit to the Jewish state earlier this year.

“Relations with Israel have never been as strong,” it said. “The ties between both countries have been strengthened throughout the years, simultaneously and without harm to the initiatives to establish closer ties with the Arab and Muslim world.”

Israel is eager to sustain such ties, but also wants to contain the move toward independent recognitions of a Palestinian state. U.S. and Israeli diplomats, along with pro-Israel groups that have a presence on the continent, are pushing back in an effort to keep the initiative from snowballing.

“We do not favor that course of action,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Dec. 7. “As we’ve said many, many times, any unilateral action, we believe, is counterproductive.”

An Israeli official said Israeli diplomats are trying to convince other countries that such declarations are counterproductive to the peace process.

“Has this brought them a state? Has this brought them closer to a state? No,” the official said.

The American Jewish Committee said the declarations threw a “monkey wrench” into the peace process. The Anti-Defamation League called them “cynical.” In Congress, statements of condemnation came from Engel, as well as from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). the chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

“It’s disgraceful, and I’ve said so to the Brazilians and Argentineans,” Engel said. “They both assured me that it doesn’t affect their relationship with Israel.”

Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, convened a meeting last week in Jerusalem with Latin American journalists to emphasize that the message that the initiative was dead in the water.

“He expressed hope that the other countries on the continent would make clear to the Palestinians that a solution can be reached only through direct negotiations, without preconditions and in good faith,” said a Foreign Ministry statement describing the roundtable. “He stressed that a Palestinian state would not arise through declarations in Buenos Aires or Brasilia, but rather through negotiations with the elected government in Jerusalem.”

Areikat said the Palestinians were not under the illusion that declarations would achieve statehood. Instead, he suggested, the effort was a gambit to keep statehood on the agenda.

“This is symbolic, psychological — it comes out of a sense of urgency that we need to move fast,” he said. “The Israelis know, the Palestinians know, everyone knows there will be a Palestinian state.”

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