David Miller
The Media Line
December 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Cleaner government in Ramallah and law and order on the streets of Jenin may be doing more to bring Palestine into the community of nation states than peace talks with Israel, officials and analysts said after Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil moved to recognize Palestine as an independent state.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has spent the last three years cracking down on crime and corruption, building government institutions and ensuring security, laying the way for a state in the making that meets international norms, said Ghassan Al-Khatib, a government spokesman and director of the Palestinian Media Center. He said that has encouraged countries that might have been reluctant in the past to support independence.

“The performance of the Palestinians on the ground has allowed for an increase in support for Palestinians independence. We’re talking about security, law and order, reforms,” he told The Media Line.

The Palestinians have been toying with independence for decades. In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared a state, but five years later it opted for a negotiated solution with Israel under the 1993 Oslo accords. 17 years later, the PA has limited rule over much of the West Bank while the rival group Hamas controls Gaza, and Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu says he backs a Palestinian state.

Full independence has yet to be achieved, but PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been leading a drive to end corruption and restore order to the West Bank. A survey of Transparency International, which monitors public perceptions of corruption around the world, reported Wednesday that 59% of Palestinians polled believed corruption had decreased in the past three years.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kicked off the latest advance toward independence, announcing last Friday he supported the “legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people for a secure, united, democratic and economically viable state coexisting peacefully with Israel." Argentina and Uruguay followed on Monday

"The Argentine government recognizes Palestine as a free and independent state within the borders defined in 1967," Argentinean Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said, reading a letter sent by President Cristina Kirchner to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The decision by the Latin American countries came as the U.S. abandoned efforts to coax Israel into a settlement freeze and bring the PA back to the negotiating table, marking another setback in efforts to reach a negotiated solution. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to unveil a new U.S. strategy on Friday.

The U.S. retreat on freezing settlements marked a milestone in international frustration over the lack of progress in the talks, which will likely prompt more governments to follow the Latin American lead, Al-Khatib said. He and other officials said the PA wasn’t giving up on negotiations, but they said Palestinians were determined to continue the campaign for recognition – for now at least – as a pressure tactic on Israel and the U.S.

“The president [Abbas] is touring the world to plea for recognition,” Issa Kassassieh, deputy head of the PA’s negotiation affairs department, told The Media Line. “We’re only asking for what the international community framed for us.”

Abbas visited South America in November, urging leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile and Paraguay to support Palestinian statehood within territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. In the last several months, the Palestinian delegations in several European countries, including Italy and Greece, have been upgraded, a move Al-Khatib said reflected the widening view that the PA was acting as a responsible government.

Al-Khatib declined to predict whether any other declarations of recognition would be made anytime soon. But there has been no sign that the U.S. or any Western European governments -- the ones that are deeply involved in the process – had any plans to follow suit. The French Foreign Ministry Tuesday denied an Iranian report it was contemplating recognition. American lawmakers condemned Brazil's declaration as "severely misguided" and "regrettable," Agence France-Presse reported.

Kassassieh stressed that the independence drive was going hand-in-hand with efforts to revive talks with Israel.

“Our priority is still reaching a bilateral agreement with Israel. If that doesn’t work we’ll turn to the [United Nations] Security Council or to the Quartet,” he said, referring to the four parties – the U.S., European Union, Russia and the UN – shepherding the peace process.

Israeli officials don’t believe that. The government sharply criticized the South American declarations, saying they violate a 1995 agreement with the PA, which stipulated that any agreement should stem from mutual negotiations.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said South America recognition of Palestinian statehood lacked real political meaning. But, he said, it does serve the Palestinian strategy of shunning peace negotiations and imposing a fait accompli on Israel.

"The Palestinians are merely paying lip service to negotiations in order to please the Americans," he told The Media Line. "In fact, they want to impose a settlement on Israel."

Robert Danin, a former head of the Quartet office in Jerusalem and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the South American declarations may embolden Palestinians to take unilateral steps, but did not threaten American diplomacy as of yet.

"The Palestinians understand that Israel and the U.S. are two key players that will make the entire difference," he told The Media Line. "Without the consent of both Israel and the U.S., it will remain only a declaration."


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