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Abbas Woos ‘Latin America’s Israel’ in Palestinian State Bid

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with his Colombian counterpart today, hoping to take advantage of Latin America’s growing independence from the U.S. to win a Security Council vote in his bid for United Nations membership.

It won’t be easy. Colombia, a rotating member of the Security Council, rebuffed a Palestinian diplomatic push last year that won it recognition as an independent state from Brazil and eight other South American nations. Colombia is the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid outside the Middle East and the visit comes as Congress this week is scheduled to vote on a free-trade agreement that will strengthen ties even further.

A small chance to win over President Juan Manuel Santos exists because his 14-month-old administration has tried to ease tensions with Venezuela, a staunch opponent of the U.S., and deepen trade with the rest of South America, said Adam Isacson, analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Santos has tried to do away with the image that Colombia is almost a proxy of the U.S.,” said Isacson, who has led congressional delegations to Colombia. “This vote would absolutely hurt that. But to go against the U.S. on an issue of this gravity would be a thumb in the U.S. eye.”

The Palestinians have said at least eight council members - - Russia, China, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon and India -- will back their bid in the Security Council. A U.S. veto pledge notwithstanding, that still leaves the Palestinians one vote short of the nine needed for membership.

Siding With U.S.

Santos, at the UN General Assembly last month, sided with the U.S. and said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can only be resolved through peace talks. He said his country’s position is the same as it was in 1947, when it was among 10 nations that abstained from the UN vote creating the state of Israel.

“We want the Palestinian state to come into existence, but not by imposition from a vote or resolution, rather as a product of negotiations that are the only way to guarantee peace,” Santos, 60, told reporters today after meeting with Abbas.

The position differs from that of Brazil, which is also currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council. In a move that surprised Washington, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last year recognized the state of Palestine based on borders before Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967. Eight other South American nations followed suit, though not all recognized the pre-1967 borders.

“The recognition of the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty and self-determination increases the chances of a lasting peace,” Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, told the General Assembly on Sept. 21.

‘Israel of Latin America’

Israel and the U.S. are among Colombia’s top weapons suppliers in its fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Latin America’s biggest and oldest insurgency. Israeli advisers also assisted Santos, when he was defense minister from 2006 to 2009, in planning the rescue of 15 rebel-held hostages, including politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors.

Like Israel, Colombia has drawn criticism for its strong tactics against insurgents. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accused Santos in 2009 of turning Colombia into the “Israel of Latin America” when as defense minister he ordered the bombing of a guerrilla camp in Ecuador. The attack was condemned as a threat to regional security by Brazil and spurred Chavez to break off trade and send tanks to the border.

Since becoming president, Santos has mended ties with Chavez by distancing himself from claims by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, that Venezuela is harboring Colombian guerrillas.

Chinese Influence

At the same time, he has played down relations with the U.S., which has provided Colombia with more than $7 billion in anti-narcotics aid since 2000. The Harvard University-educated president didn’t mention the U.S. in his inaugural address last year, as the free-trade agreement struck in 2006 languished, and has since forged stronger trade ties with Brazil and Asia.

Colombian exports to China more than doubled last year to $2 billion, while those to the U.S. rose 31 percent, to $16.9 billion. Santos is also seeking Chinese investment for a “dry canal” to connect the Pacific Ocean port of Buenaventura by rail to coal deposits near the Caribbean.

The trend is similar throughout Latin America, where China in 2009 overtook the U.S. as Brazil’s biggest trading partner and is now the biggest buyer of exports from Chile.

Not U.S. ‘Priority’

“Latin America has not been a priority for the U.S. for a long time,” said Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former Colombian finance minister and professor of international relations at Columbia University in New York. “There is no question that Latin America has become much more independent.”

The U.S. and Israel still have considerable leverage over Santos. A vote recognizing a Palestinian state could put at risk implementation of the trade agreement with the U.S., said Ivan Cepeda, a Colombian opposition lawmaker.

While Colombia’s 4,000-strong Jewish community is dwarfed by ones in Argentina and Brazil, Santos as defense minister boosted defense purchases from Israel, including 24 Kfir jet fighters after visiting the Jewish state in 2008. A year earlier, 38 percent of Colombia’s foreign defense purchases went to Israel, according to a secret State Department cable released by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, citing an internal Colombian Ministry of Defense report.

General Assembly

While the U.S. has vowed to veto any Security Council vote for statehood, President Barack Obama may prefer to avoid a move that could fuel anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, Abbas, 76, said in a Sept. 15 interview.

The Palestinians also have the option of turning to the General Assembly, though recognition would be limited, said Abbas, who also plans to visit Portugal, another non-permanent Security Council member. Abbas will stop in Caracas today en route to Europe, Chavez said last night.

A UN human-rights body in Geneva expressed concern today about a “spike in violence” by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

“We call on the government of Israel to fulfill its obligation under international human-rights and international humanitarian law to protect Palestinian civilians and property,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an e-mailed statement.

The Palestinian request to become the UN’s 194th member state is being examined by a committee of experts, which is expected on Oct. 18 to report its initial findings to the Security Council. In the 15-nation body, the procedures permit any member to ask for a vote at any time, after giving the members 24 hours’ notice.

“We are aware of the close ties that Israel has with Colombia,” said Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki in a phone interview before Abbas’s arrival in Bogota. “That doesn’t stop us from making the effort.”

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