Support For Palestinian Statehood Splits Argentines
Following intense lobbying, eight South American countries have recognized Palestine as an independent state since December, giving the Palestinian Authority momentum in a campaign to win worldwide declarations of support for Palestinian statehood.
One of the first was Argentina, which is also home to Latin America's largest Jewish community. After holding talks about statehood with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' government, Argentina said its support for the Palestinians is designed to nudge peace talks with Israel, which are now frozen, and send a message to the United States that it isn't the only power broker in the Middle East.
"Each country arrived at its own decision," said Hector Timerman, Argentina's foreign minister, in an interview with NPR in Buenos Aires. "Probably it was a very successful diplomacy by Mahmoud Abbas, who spent a lot of time in the region explaining his strategy for peace in the Middle East."
For Israel and its supporters, the recognition of a Palestinian state by Argentina and its neighbors does little to bolster talks in the Middle East or bring the Palestinian Authority closer to governing its own country.
"It's not real in the sense that declaring a Palestinian state on 1967 borders doesn't create a Palestinian state on 1967 borders," says Alan Elsner, spokesman for the Israel Project, a Washington-based group supportive of Israel. "The only way you get a Palestinian state is by negotiating a peace agreement."
The reaction among the thriving Muslim communities in Buenos Aires, though, has been one of strong support. Many Muslims in Argentina are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who arrived decades ago.
At the Al Ahmad mosque in Buenos Aires, worshippers celebrated after President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner recognized an independent Palestine in December, just a week after Brazil offered recognition.
Finishing his afternoon prayers on a recent day, Omar Candioti says the decision was the right one.
"They are our brothers," he says. "They've suffered, and we must be united."
Across the city, at the Emanu-El synagogue, the government's decision is seen quite differently. Emanu-El is a progressive temple, with a well-known chorus, a day-care center and community outreach programs. Its founders were German Jews who escaped Nazi terror, arriving in Buenos Aires in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
The young rabbi, Alejandro Avruj, who wears his hair long and was educated in New York, says he wants a peaceful resolution in the Middle East. That can only happen, he says, with an independent Palestine.
But he says Argentina's recognition is rash — coming with Middle East peace talks frozen and Israel unable to ensure its security.
"I think it's necessary to happen a lot of things before this kind of recognition, and before the proclaiming of a Palestinian state," Avruj says.
Like many Jewish leaders, Avruj says he was surprised by his government's recognition of Palestine — which was followed by support from Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guyana and Paraguay. A ninth country, Uruguay, says it will formally offer recognition in March.
A Lobbying Success
Walid Muaqqat, the Palestinian ambassador in Argentina, says the goal is to gain momentum and win recognition in Europe. Some European countries have already upgraded Palestinian diplomatic missions. In January, Cyprus recognized a Palestinian state, the first European Union member to do so.
Muaqqat, sitting in his vast office in a mansion provided free of charge by Argentina's government, says that the declarations of support across the continent show that the lobbying was a success.
"It was a success because it was transparent — clear and transparent," he says, "transmitting the situation in the Palestinian territories."
Muaqqat says Palestinian diplomats are in regular contact with South American governments, giving their side of the story about violence in Gaza and the West Bank. Abbas also lobbied governments in Argentina during a 2009 tour.
Muaqqat contends that across South America, governments reached the conclusion that Israel is obstructing talks, particularly by not putting a stop to the construction of Jewish settlements.
But Israel's ambassador in Argentina, Daniel Gazit, says it's the Palestinians who have moved away from peace talks. He argues that the Palestinians have made a calculated decision to try and achieve statehood in the court of public opinion.
"They are wasting their time instead of getting down to a real agreement, which we're really offering them now," Gazit says. "A Palestinian state is in our interest as well, and we've offered it to them many, many times."
Timerman, Argentina's foreign minister, said Argentina decided to give its support because talks had broken down. "We think that the Palestine asked us to recognize them as an independent state, and we think that they deserve the right to have an independent and free state," Timerman says.
The recognition comes as Argentina, and much of the continent, is seeking closer economic ties to the Arab world. Arab investors are interested in South America — and countries like Argentina want to export more to the Mideast.
In Argentina's teeming Jewish quarter, no one opposes trade with the Arab world. But ask about recognition of Palestine and you get strong opinions.
Abraham Jafif, who operates a kosher butcher shop with his sons, says he likes the Argentine government. But he wonders what the president was thinking when she recognized a Palestinian state.
"I'd like to live in the presidential palace but they won't let me," Jafif says with sarcasm.
He says the Palestinians should have a home — just not his home. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.