BUENOS AIRES – With the string of announcements in South America of recognition of a Palestinian state this month, the region’s integration process showed a new interest in and capacity to reach common positions in the realm of foreign policy.
After Brazil announced in early December that it recognised a Palestinian state, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador followed suit, and Paraguay and Uruguay said they would do the same in early 2011. Chile and Peru are also expected to reach a similar decision. Before this month, Venezuela was the only country in South America to have done so.
In theory, the common position adopted with respect to an issue involving relations outside the region came in response to a request by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
But the process took on a dynamic of its own.
"This is a good indicator of an integration process with a strategic vision of foreign relations, one that is less rhetorical and less heavily focused on economic factors than before," Khatchik DerGhougassian, a professor of international relations at the private University of San Andrés in Argentina, told IPS.
DerGhougassian said "Brazil, as an emerging power, wants to play in the big leagues," a strategy that its neighbours support as part of the integration process.
He also stressed that the decision "does not run counter to international law," because it is based on United Nations resolutions. Nor is it aimed at triggering conflicts with other countries, he added.
"It sends out a strategic signal showing that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), made up of the 12 countries in the region, can reach common decisions on the international stage, independently of what the United States or other powerhouses do," he said.
The whole thing began in Brasilia, where outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva responded positively to a letter he received from the president of the PNA, Mahmoud Abbas.
In his public letter, Lula formally recognised a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, before the Six Day War, while reiterating that the Brazilian government believes that "only dialogue and peaceful coexistence with neighbours can truly advance the Palestinian cause."
Israel and the United States immediately criticised the Brazilian government’s decision. A U.S. State Department official called it "premature," and an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "This is a very disappointing step which contributes nothing to furthering the peace process."
In response, Lula questioned the United States’ commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East.
The Palestinians have welcomed the latest developments.
Before attending Saturday’s inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s new president, Abbas will lay the cornerstone for the new Palestinian Embassy in the Brazilian capital.
Lula’s announcement "formed part of a regional policy of strengthening multilateralism," said Tullo Vigevani, a professor of international relations at Sao Paulo State University.
The Brazilian expert commented to IPS that this was a pillar of Lula’s foreign policy, and predicted that Rousseff would maintain that focus after taking office on Jan. 1.
The new common position emerged from the debates between the South American bloc and the League of Arab States, Vigevani said, because this region sees recognition of a Palestinian state as boosting the peace process in the Middle East.
Just three days after Brazil’s announcement, the Argentine government said "The time has come to recognise Palestine as a free and independent state."
Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Argentina has a "deep interest" in seeing Israelis and Palestinians agree to "a deep and lasting peace in the Middle East."
Argentina’s decision caught even the Palestinians off guard. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told an Argentine paper, "We were surprised by how fast the decision came and by such a clear, strong expression of support."
Uruguay also stated immediately that it would formally recognise a Palestinian state in January.
Meanwhile, at the mid-December summit of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the governments signed an agreement to negotiate a free trade deal with the Palestinian territories.
During the summit, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that his country recognised the Palestinian state.
In a formal letter to Abbas, he said his government could not "continue waiting with its arms crossed given the problems of human rights, territory and sovereignty" of the Palestinian people.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said in his own letter to Abbas that his country’s recognition of a Palestinian state "is meant to reinforce the valid and legitimate wish of the Palestine people to have their own free and independent state."
Paraguayan Foreign Minister Héctor Lacognata said Paraguay would recognise a Palestinian state by spring 2011.
The PNA, Chilean lawmakers and Palestinian organisations urged Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to recognise a Palestinian state, in compliance with U.N. resolutions.
The Palestinian community in Chile, the largest outside of the Middle East, is confident that the decision will be reached after Piñera and Abbas meet in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital.
In mid-November, Piñera declared his support for the creation of a "free, autonomous, prosperous and secure" Palestinian state.
Chilean political scientist Guillermo Holzman told IPS that "the most likely" outcome is that the Piñera administration will recognise a Palestinian state, and pointed out that there are large Palestinian and Jewish communities in Latin America that are closely following the issue.
Holzman said Palestine has tried to generate international pressure that would make negotiations with Israel viable, and added that if the "political momentum" built up in this region continues to mount, and expands outside the region, it will have a definite influence on unblocking the peace talks.
"This should be seen as a wakeup call to the world’s powerful nations to work harder in the search for a peaceful solution" to the Middle East crisis, the Chilean analyst said.
*Additional reporting by Daniela Estrada in Santiago and Fabiana Frayssinet in Rio de Janeiro.