Tracy Wilkinson
The Los Angeles Times
October 10, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was touring Latin America this week, his second visit to the region in less than a year as part of a worldwide lobbying effort to gain recognition for a Palestinian state.

Abbas met officials in the Colombian capital of Bogota on Monday, a day after announcing with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador plans to establish diplomatic ties there. Until recently, El Salvador was one of Israel's closest allies in Latin America.

"We are very interested in developing our relations with all the countries of the American continent," Abbas said in San Salvador, according to a Spanish translation of his remarks.

The Palestinians began drumming up support in Latin America last year as part of a strategy to create momentum for their eventual United Nations bid for statehood. In response, major countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile formally recognized a sovereign, independent Palestinian state, months before the issue dominated this year's session of the U.N. General Assembly.

At the meetings in New York last month, Abbas filed an official request for "Palestine" to be recognized as a U.N. member nation. The 15-member U.N. Security Council is divided on the issue, however, and lengthy deliberations are likely before any vote is scheduled.

Abbas' current efforts are largely symbolic because the United States has made it clear it will veto the statehood bid if and when it comes up for a vote at the Security Council. The Obama administration, along with a number of European governments, has said the Palestinians must achieve statehood through negotiations with Israel — even though that goal has proved elusive for nearly two decades.

The Palestinians are hoping to show they have broad global support for their quest, including in Latin America. And as numerous of the region's countries have voiced that support, they have also pointedly rejected Washington's position.

Among major Latin American countries, only Colombia and Mexico, two of the United States' staunchest allies, have not come out in favor of immediate recognition of a Palestinian state.

Colombia, with a seat on the Security Council as a nonpermanent member, has generally abstained on related issues. But Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently said Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a peace accord were essential precursors to statehood, thus hewing to the position of the so-called Mideast quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, speaking in the Mexican Senate late last month, also advocated "dialogue" and a negotiated settlement.

Although left-ruled countries in Latin America such as Venezuela recognized "Palestine" years ago, Abbas has forged a critical mass with the diplomatic drive, which began late last year. In a ceremony in December, for example, Brazil gave Abbas a piece of land in Brasilia on which he laid the cornerstone of a future embassy of Palestine.

At the time, Israeli officials dismissed as futile efforts "in faraway continents."

Historically, though, Latin America has often become the new home of Palestinians and other Arabs who left the Middle East. Chile and parts of Central America, for example, have large and influential communities of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and others of Arab descent.

Trade and investment ties between parts of Latin America and the Arab world also have been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Mercosur, the South American common-market group of nations, announced it was entering into negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the Palestinians.

Speaking Monday at City Hall in Bogota, where he was given keys to the capital, Abbas said the Palestinian Authority was prepared to return to negotiations with Israel and that there was no contradiction between holding talks and recognizing a Palestinian nation. Abbas is scheduled to meet with Santos on Tuesday. The Colombian president has insisted that the Palestinian leader's visit does not indicate that Bogota will change its position on the statehood question.


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