Gil Shefler
The Jerusalem Post
January 12, 2011 - 1:00am

Gabriel Zaliasnik, president of the Jewish community in Chile, thinks Israel’s Foreign Ministry is making a big mistake.

Having spent the last few weeks battling local pro-Palestinian groups in an effort to influence his government not to recognize Palestinian statehood, Zaliasnik believes the statement that eventually emerged from Santiago last Friday accepting Palestinian independence while acknowledging Israel’s right to security was not the diplomatic debacle some made it out to be, but in fact was a victory of sorts.

“I think the Israeli foreign minister is making a mistake in considering the statement a defeat,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“What you should be concerned with is the content of the recognition, which acknowledges Israel and doesn’t mention borders. I wouldn’t get excessively over-concerned because it recognized a Palestinian state.”

Zaliasnik, 43, is the youngest-ever leader of Chile’s 25,000-strong Jewish community “by far,” he said.

A lawyer by profession, he made a name for himself representing several high-profile clients, including former Argentinean president Carlos Menem.

“Someone told me that to make the case you have to be a good criminal lawyer,” he joked. “It’s a very hard case.”

The son of a Chilean mother and Argentinean father whose parents emigrated to South America from Europe, he was a member of the Beitar youth movement, but he assumed a leadership role in the Jewish community only during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

“For many years I dedicated myself only to my profession, but after the Second Lebanon War the media was so hateful and our leadership performing so badly I came out and was offered to become president,” he recalled.

Chile’s Jewish community is affluent and influential, he said. Its members are “academics, scientists, artists and painters.” Its most famous member is television personality Don Francisco, born Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld, who hosts the long-running Sabado Gigante variety show, which has loyal viewers throughout South America.

“Don Francisco comes to synagogue for Yom Kippur and often helps the community,” Zaliasnik said.

Still, the Jewish community is vastly outnumbered by the country’s Palestinian population, the largest on the continent, which numbers up to 400,000 people. In recent years Chileans of Palestinian origin, who are mostly Christian, have become increasingly vocal in their support of the Palestinian cause.

“Historically we’ve had good relations,” Zaliasnik said of ties between Jews and Palestinians in Chile. “In the past 10 years they have deteriorated a little bit because the Middle East conflict has become more on the agenda.

Some members of the Palestinian community have pushed their representatives to use their power in the country.”

When Brazil recognized Palestinian statehood in early December, Chile was ready to follow suit immediately, sources said. However, an important meeting between Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar – who is a friend of Israel and happened to be visiting Chile at the time – combined with pressure from the local Jewish community and two late-night phone calls from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Pinera, managed to postpone the planned proclamation.

“It was a miracle it took so long for the proclamation to come out,” Zaliasnik said.

“We decided to fight the core issues: No to any reference to final-status boundaries on the Green Line or 1967 borders; that Palestinians had to negotiate directly with Israel; and third, that any Chilean statement explicitly recognize the right of Israel to live in secure borders. That’s what we were fighting for.”

Dina Vann-Segal, of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, agreed with Zaliasnik’s assessment that Israel had not “lost” Chile.

“It’s important to point out that once the process was unleashed, it was not a blanket deal,” she said in an email last Sunday. “Every country was different and their statements reflected their own local, regional and global dynamics. Chile acted responsibly given all the circumstances and pressures. Its statement is not that different from what the US’s position is, and both its government and the community should be given their due credit.”

The next battleground between pro-Israel and pro- Palestinian groups over Latin American recognition of Palestinian statehood will be in Lima, Peru, where the third Latin American-Arab summit will be held in February.

“I feel Colombia won’t recognize Palestinian statehood,” Zaliasnik opined. “I read the quotes of the Colombian foreign minister in Bogota on the issue. My feeling is that Mexico could feel like it has to follow us, but they don’t have a Palestinian lobby. Peru doesn’t have a Palestinian lobby either, but they are hosting an Arab League summit, so it may affect Peruvian President Alan Garcia. Of the three, Peru is the most vulnerable.”


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